The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court of justice ordered Sierra Leone on Thursday to « immediately » lift the controversial ban on pregnant girls from going to school.
Sierra Leone officially banned pregnant girls from going to school in 2015, following the 2014 Ebola epidemic, when some 14,000 girls became pregnant, according to the UN.
During the epidemic, thousands of orphaned girls, whose parents died of Ebola, turned to prostitution to survive, according to Amnesty International. Others believed that the pregnancy was the result of rape.
In 2018, the NGO Women against violence and exploitation in society (WAVES) and other civil society groups challenged this ban before the ECOWAS court of justice after the failure to appeal to the nationwide.
In rendering her decision on Thursday in Abuja, judge Dupe Atoki said that this « prohibitive policy should be immediately overturned », saying it was « discriminatory against pregnant teenagers ».
The court also condemned a special government program backed by Britain and the UN, providing limited education for pregnant girls, an AFP correspondent said on the spot.
« The establishment of schools for pregnant adolescents where four subjects are taught three days a week is discriminatory and constitutes a violation of the right to an equal education, » added the judge.
Application of the decision
Hannah Yambasu, director of WAVES in Sierra Leone, welcomed the move, saying it was essential to « protect the girls and ensure they can finish higher education. »
Marta Colomer, Amnesty International’s deputy director for West and Central Africa, also welcomed the decision, which was binding on the government of Sierra Leone.
« Today’s decision is a defining moment for the thousands of girls who have been excluded from school and whose right to access education without discrimination has been violated, » she said in a statement.
« This judgment commits Sierra Leone, » she said while remaining cautious. « The problem is that in the past, some ECOWAS judgments have encountered difficulties in being executed, » she said.
Women and girls in Sierra Leone face extremely high levels of sexual violence – a legacy of the country’s bloody civil war (1991-2002).
All schools were closed between June 2014 and April 2015 as part of government efforts to curb the spread of the Ebola virus, which has killed nearly 4,000 people in the country.
But after they reopened, stigma remained common. In 2015, 5,000 young girls were excluded for becoming pregnant during the epidemic. the government finally ordered their reinstatement in 2016.