A ban on girls who became pregnant during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone attending high school has only been partially lifted, according to advocacy campaign Equality Now. Although 5,000 students who were expelled for getting pregnant have been allowed back into the education system, the group is drawing attention to discrimination against victims of sexual assault, who remain excluded.
At the height of the health crisis, sexual exploitation increased dramatically, as orphaned girls turned to prostitution in order to afford the basics, while others were simply unprotected from predators, with a subsequent spike in teen pregnancies. When schools re-opened in April 2015, the pregnant girls were not permitted to attend, amid fears of a “negative influence,” the education minister Brima Turay told AFP. Amnesty International reported humiliating pregnancy checks, including squeezing teenagers’ breasts in public to see if they expressed milk.
In a compromise by the government, pregnant girls were then allowed to attend alternative schools, that offered an inferior education and carried a stigma. “While this alternative might be based in good intentions, separate and unequal schooling only serves to perpetuate discrimination and stigma against the adolescent girls who have been victimized by those with power,” Christa Stewart, Equality Now program manager, said in a statement.
The advocacy organization cites the case of Frances, 13, who agreed to have sex with an older man in exchange for him paying her education costs. She was expelled after becoming pregnant. Equality Now is calling on Sierra Leone to lift the discriminatory ban, and asks international donors to assist with funding educational opportunities for girls.