(Nairobi) – Tens of thousands of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are denied their right to education across Africa, despite progress in some countries, Human Rights Watch said today to mark the African Union’s Day of the African Child. The 2019 theme focuses on children’s rights in humanitarian action in Africa.
The African continent has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world, according to the United Nations. While many pregnancies are unplanned, others occur in child marriages, a widespread problem that many African governments are failing to address effectively. Other causes include sexual exploitation and abuse, lack of information about sexuality and reproduction, and lack of access to family planning services and modern contraception. In humanitarian crises, including war and natural disasters, girls and young women are at high risk of sexual violence and exploitation, which often results in unwanted pregnancies.
“A shocking number of girls across Africa become mothers before they’ve grown up themselves, including those caught in humanitarian crises,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Many adolescent mothers don’t return to school because their schools exclude them, or their families don’t let them continue their education.”
Across Africa, students are barred from school because they became pregnant or are mothers. Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Equatorial Guinea explicitly ban pregnant girls from attending school. In November 2018, the World Bank withheld a US$300 million loan for secondary education in Tanzania, expressing concern over its exclusion of pregnant girls and teenage mothers. Following discussions between the World Bank and President John Magufuli, the government committed to finding ways for the girls to return to school. But the government has not fulfilled this commitment, leaving thousands of girls out of school.
In June, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hear a case against Sierra Leone challenging the country’s discriminatory ban against pregnant girls. The ban has been in place since the Ebola outbreak in 2015, when teenage pregnancies surged because of widespread sexual violence against girls, Amnesty International reported.
Human Rights Watch found that 27 African countries now have laws or policies that protect adolescent girls’ education during pregnancy and motherhood. Among recent important steps to safeguard their education, in July 2018 Burundi overturned a hastily adopted ministerial decree that would have banned pregnant girls, and boys who got them pregnant, from school. In December, Mozambique revoked a discriminatory 2003 decree that forced pregnant girls to take classes at night school. In February 2019, Zimbabwe introduced an amended education bill that protects pregnant girls from exclusion.
All children, including pregnant girls and young mothers, have a right to continue or resume education during humanitarian crises, or to participate in accelerated education programs if they have been out of school for a long period.
Some countries with ongoing humanitarian crises, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and South Sudan, have adopted laws that protect young mothers’ right to return to school, but need education policies to make sure the laws are enforced. Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic lack a targeted law or policy.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 48 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 19 are pregnant or already mothers. A report by the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack found that girls struggle both from the stigma as survivors of rape and sexual violence and pregnancy as a result of those crimes. Some girls said that they were not able to obtain psychosocial (mental health) services or receive support to resume education. Many struggle with rejection in their families and communities, particularly those girls who were formerly members of armed groups.
In these crisis-affected countries, neither national education sector plans nor UN-led humanitarian plans include the education needs of girls who are pregnant or have children, Human Rights Watch said. This means interventions to help children continue or resume education during times of crisis fail to address the educational needs of pregnant girls and young mothers. The humanitarian needs analysis typically focuses exclusively on the health and nutritional needs of mothers and their children.
“I did return to school because I want to continue with my studies, but it is not easy,” said Olivia B., a 24-year-old college student from Kananga, in Congo’s Kasai region, who was raped by a militiaman while fleeing an attack on her school. “Students are teasing me. I don’t feel well at school... They criticize me… I feel afraid and ashamed ... No teachers, professors, or anyone else has intervened to help me. There is no program or anything else to support me.”
The failure to ensure that pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are supported to go to school in humanitarian settings not only limits access to education, but also exposes already vulnerable children to more violence, hardship, and poverty, Human Rights Watch said.
Humanitarian education programs should be inclusive, and ensure that temporary and permanent school environments and infrastructure accommodate girls’ needs. African governments should adopt legal protections for pregnant girls, and ensure that their national education plans, including education in emergencies or crisis response plans, include measures to enable pregnant girls and adolescent mothers to continue their education.
In addition to their fundamental obligation to guarantee the right to education, free from discrimination, governments should adopt measures to ensure education is not interrupted during humanitarian crises. Under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, African governments have a specific obligation to take all possible measures to protect children affected by conflict, especially to mitigate the disproportionate effects of conflict on girls, and to take measures to ensure girls are not exposed to sexual violence, or forced into marriage.
“Education is crucial for all children, and especially so for girls whose childhood and education have been disrupted by pregnancy,” Martinez said. “All African governments, humanitarian and development agencies, and donors should ensure that pregnant girls and adolescent parents have the support they need to stay in school.”