Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Uganda and São Tomé and Príncipe act to protect girls’ education but barriers remain

At least five more African countries have taken important steps in recent years to protect the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers but some barriers remain, Human Rights Watch says.

Since 2019, at least five sub-Saharan African countries – MozambiqueZimbabweSierra LeoneUganda, and São Tomé and Príncipe – have either revoked restrictive or discriminatory policies or adopted laws or policies that allow pregnant students and adolescent mothers to stay in school under certain conditions.

“More African governments are taking stronger actions to support the rights of girls to education,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But many girls still have to fight against enormous government-imposed barriers that deny them their right to education and make schools turn their backs on them when they most need support.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in teenage pregnancies in many African countries, according to United Nations, media, and civil society reports. This increase could be linked to prolonged school closures – all African countries closed their schools in 2020 – and lack of remote learning opportunities during the pandemic, the lack of protective environments, and the loss of access to sexual and reproductive health services.

At least 30 African Union (AU) countries now have laws, policies, or strategies to protect pregnant students and adolescent mothers’ right to education. Sierra Leone reversed its policy in 2020, lifting a discriminatory ban against pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers and adopting a more robust inclusive education policy.

In March 2021 Sierra Leone adopted a policy of “Radical Inclusion” that reaffirms pregnant girls and adolescent mothers’ right to education. It also provides that girls can stay in school during their pregnancy and return to school when they are ready, without imposing burdensome conditions, mandatory maternity leave, or restrictions for their return.

In March 2020 São Tomé e Príncipe revoked a ministerial decree that required pregnant students to study in night-shift schools after the third month of pregnancy and for its duration. This action was tied to a World Bank majority-funded US$15 million grant for the country’s strategy to improve quality education and accelerate girls’ education.

In December 2020 Uganda introduced revised guidelines on pregnancy prevention and management in schools. The policy affirms the right to education of students who are pregnant or are parents, though it places numerous conditions on enrollment. It mandates schools to prioritize readmitting mothers and girls after pregnancy and provides redress for children and parents when public schools refuse to enroll them. It also gives schools guidance to tackle stigma, discrimination, and violence against students who are pregnant or are parents.

However, it also sets out a series of strict “reentry” conditions, including requiring girls to drop out when they are three-months pregnant, and to take a mandatory six-month maternity leave. Human Rights Watch previously found that some of these conditions constitute an effective barrier, particularly as girls will be required to stay out of school for up to a year. The policy relies on effectively compulsory periodic pregnancy testing to detect and prevent pregnancies, violating girls’ rights to privacy, equality, and bodily autonomy.

In 2019 Zimbabwe reformed its Education Act to include a provision that prohibits excluding pregnant students from school. The act also protects students from discrimination on the grounds of marital status, among nearly 20 protected grounds.

In December 2018 Mozambique revoked a national decree that required pregnant students to study in night-shift schools. The government has not yet adopted a policy that ensures girls’ right to remain in school, though, or prescribes how schools should now manage pregnant students and adolescent mothers.

Although Kenya has two older policies that set out conditions for an adolescent mother’s “unconditional” readmission to school, in 2020 the government adopted national reentry guidelines for students who face educational barriers and drop out of school, including due to pregnancy. The policy clarifies that pregnant students can remain in school for as long as possible, and are expected to reenter school at least six months after delivery, at the beginning of the next calendar year.

However, three AU countries still adhere to policies that bar pregnant girls and teenage mothers from going to school. Tanzania maintains an official ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers in public schools, which was strengthened during the presidency of the late John Magufuli.

Pregnant girls are arbitrarily denied the right to study in public primary and lower secondary schools. Adolescent mothers can only study in “alternative education pathways,” a large-scale national education program funded with a $500 million loan from the World Bank. This loan raised concerns regarding the World Bank’s broader commitment to implementing its Environmental and Social Framework, which guarantees that bank loans will not be used to further discrimination, and that World Bank funds will not be used to undermine marginalized groups.

The World Bank should work with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion and accommodation of all girls in public schools, including those who are pregnant or parents. It should use its leverage to work with African governments to remove discriminatory or problematic policies that undermine education progress for all children, and encourage all governments to adopt inclusive, rights-respecting policies, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments that took important, bold steps to remove restrictions and discriminatory provisions in their laws and policies should go one step further and adopt positive measures that fully promote girls’ right to education and that obligate schools to include and support students who are pregnant or parents, Human Rights Watch said. All governments should ensure that their education systems do not discriminate and consider policy revisions to promote girls’ rights to education and their sexual and reproductive rights, including comprehensive sexuality education.

“Numerous African countries are demonstrating leadership in safeguarding every girl’s right to education,” Martinez said. “The African Union should press all African countries to adopt measures to ensure that all schools and government officials have guidance and examples of good practice on creating inclusive public schools where all girls, including those who are pregnant or adolescent mothers, can complete their primary and secondary education.”

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