“Angela,” 20, walks with her son near her home after returning from school in Migori county, western Kenya. She is a Form 4 student at a girls-only school. Angela became pregnant when her trainee teacher offered to pay some of her primary school fees in return for sex. Her father tried to marry her off to suitors after she gave birth, but Angela’s mother fought against this and supported her return to school. She wants to go to college and study nursing.

© 2018 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

Representatives of the Catholic church in Eastern Africa will meet in Addis Ababa later this week to discuss “vibrant diversity, equal dignity, and peaceful unity” in the region.

A good place to start would be to change the way the Church treats pregnant teenagers.

Last year, in Tanzania, leaders of the Catholic church openly supported the government’s ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers from attending school. Archbishop Damian Denis Dally stated that allowing young mothers in school “is not part of African culture.”

In Zambia, Catholic schools – including those that are financially supported by the government – reject the government's school re-entry policy for young mothers and to allow pregnant girls to attend. They often force students who become teenage moms to transfer to other schools.

East African church leaders should take the opportunity this week to reaffirm their commitments under the African Union’s call to “Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development.” This should include a resounding commitment to abandon all policies or practices that discriminate against pregnant girls and young mothers.

These leaders should remember there are many complex reasons why teenage girls get pregnant – including a government’s failure to protect girls from sexual violence in and around schools. Pregnant girls often face discrimination, punishment, and exclusion. Pregnant students and teenage moms are often left behind when they most need support from their schools, families, and communities. Turning their backs on these girls will only worsen their situation.

In Burundi and Tanzania, governments have chosen to deny pregnant girls their right to education. But they are a minority. Ensuring teenage moms of school-going-age stay in school has broad support across Africa, including in Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. Our report, Leave No Girl Behind in Africa, shows that many countries have adopted policies or legislation to protect a girl’s right to education regardless of pregnancy, motherhood, or marriage status. In doing so, a large group of countries have demonstrated that keeping all girls in school is the right thing to do.

Catholic leaders in East Africa should not support policies or practices that leave the most vulnerable girls in East Africa behind. That’s what “equal dignity” means.