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Victory at ECOWAS Court for girls in Sierra Leone

A photo of girls walking to school

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice has found that the government of Sierra Leone breached the right of pregnant girls to education by prohibiting pregnant school girls from accessing school.

In a succinct and powerful judgment the Court found that the government had not only put in place a discriminatory policy barring pregnant girls from school but had also failed to put in place measures to reduce teenage pregnancies in line with the National Strategy for the Reduction of Teen Pregnancies, which was adopted after the civil war.

Further, the court found that the government had discriminated against the girls by setting up parallel schools that were sub-optimal and limiting in that girls would only be taught four subjects and learn for only three days a week.

In a landmark decision for the West African region and Africa in general, the Court declared the ban discriminatory and ordered the government of Sierra Leone to lift it with immediate effect. Further the court ordered the government of Sierra Leone to put in place measures including social programmes to address increased numbers of teenage pregnancies and sensitize the communities against discrimination.

Speaking in Abuja at the sidelines of the judgment reading, Miss Hannah Yambasu Executive Director Women Against Violence and  Exploitation in Society (W.A.V.E.S) said she was overjoyed. “This victory belongs to the girls in Sierra Leone who have been degraded and dehumanized because of their status since 2014. Now our government in Sierra Leone has no option but to comply with their obligations as declared by the Court.”

WAVES, Child Welfare Society, Equality Now and Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa IHRDA filed the case against the Sierra Leone Government in May 2018.

Ms Judy Gitau, Africa Regional Coordinator at Equality Now was also at the court as the agent of the girls and was excited by the outcome of their case. This is a great victory!!! Finally the girls have had their day in court and have emerged victorious. The ECOWAS court has given them their voices back and by that a chance  at life again.”

Amnesty International who were Amicus Curiae in the case were also present at the judgment reading.

The Court sought to set the record straight regarding what a policy was since the government of Sierra Leone had initially denied the existence of a policy and claimed it was an unfortunate statement by their minister. The Court held that the government took what was a sporadic practice and entrenched it as state policy banning girls from accessing school on account of their status.

The Court specifically held that:

  • There exists a policy which was discriminatory against pregnant school girls in Sierra Leone as it barred  pregnant school girls from attending mainstream schools. Consequently, the court held that the Government was in breach of it’s commitments and responsibility under both local and international law particularly Articles 2, 3, 17, 18, 25 of the African Charter; Article 21 and 28a of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Articles 1 and 3 of the Convention Against Discrimination in Education.
  • With regard to alternative schools for the pregnant girls, the Court held that the establishment of separate schools for pregnant with four taught subjects operating three days a week was discriminatory and a violation of the right to equal education.
  • The Court therefore ordered that the prohibitive policy be revoked with immediate effect and that the Government of Sierra Leone takes steps to abolish the alternative schools established for pregnant girls.
  • The Court also asked the Government of Sierra Leone to develop strategies and nationwide programmes that focus on reversing negative societal attitudes that support the discrimination and bias against pregnant girls. These strategies and programmes must enable teenage mothers to attend school.
  • The Government of Sierra Leone was also ordered to integrate Sexual Reproductive Health Rights in school curriculum and to increase knowledge on family planning and contraceptive to address the high rate of teenage pregnancy.

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