Pregnant teenagers and their right to education are in the spotlight again, this time as Sierra Leone tries to ban “visibly pregnant” girls from taking their exams in primary and secondary school. The “ban” comes just two weeks after President Jacob Zuma of South Africa recommended that teen mothers be separated from their children until they have completed their education.

Adolescent girls already face formidable obstacles to staying in school – UNESCO estimates that worldwide some 32 million girls between the ages of 12 and 15 never make it to school or drop out. Human Rights Watch has documented how security threats and fear of kidnapping and sexual violence stops girls from going to school, and further how girls forced into marriage and pregnancy are expelled and excluded. Girls with disabilities are also frequently excluded from any form of quality education, and the lack of access to water and sanitation at school leads to absenteeism and drop out as girls reach puberty.

Teenage pregnancy is endemic in Sierra Leone. Thirty-six percent of all pregnancies in the country already occur among adolescent girls, and teenagers account for 40 percent of maternal deaths. With already far too few girls in secondary education, Sierra Leone should think carefully about how to stop those still in school from dropping out.

In its national strategy the government admits that “teenage pregnancy is among the most pervasive problems affecting the health, social, economic and political progress and empowerment of young women and girls in Sierra Leone.” So why is it banning girls from writing their exams because they are pregnant? This not only denies their right to education, but also utterly undermines the government’s own strategy of reducing teenage pregnancy rates by encouraging education.

Sierra Leone should instead be actively championing girls’ right to education and ensuring that policies and programs are in place to make secondary education accessible to all pregnant teens and new mothers. These could include maternity leave for pregnant teenagers, access to child care for new moms, and quality early childhood programs for their young children or evening classes. Schools should also provide proper sexuality education for both girls and boys, and let them access reproductive health care and family planning. 

Many girls have already missed up to a year of school since the Ebola epidemic started nearly eight months ago. Sierra Leone should not punish them again.