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Statement on the Official Opening of the 40th Ordinary Session of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

Pregnant girls and young mothers face high levels of stigma from their peers at school, from school officials, and from their community. A lack of gender-sensitive instruction, and discriminatory attitudes in the school setting contribute to students dropping out and discourage students from re-enrolling. © 2022 Ojima Abalaka for Human Rights Watch

The Chairperson of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Honorable Members of the Committee, State Party representatives, civil society organizations, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Human Rights Watch is honored to address the African Children’s Committee at its 40th Ordinary Session. Human Rights Watch is a non-governmental organization that documents human rights violations and advocates for change in over 100 countries around the world. We have been working on children’s rights, including on the right to education, for over three decades. Since 2016, we have documented violations of the right to education against female students who are pregnant or who have children.

We commend the Committee for highlighting the right to non-discrimination of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in education in the issuance of Concluding Observations for Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa, among others. In particular, we welcome the 2022 Decision on the merits of the Communication to the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania, which found that the practice of mandatory pregnancy testing in public schools and expelling pregnant students violates the African Children’s Charter, and urged the state party to undertake legal reforms of its education policies. 

This year, Human Rights Watch published an overview of laws and policies related to teenage pregnancy in schools across countries of the African Union, “A Brighter Future: Empowering Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers to Stay in School.” While we found some encouraging trends, we also noted serious issues of concern.

On the positive side, the analysis found that 38 out of 55 African countries have laws, policies, or other measures that protect adolescent girls’ education during pregnancy and motherhood. However, within these 38 countries, pregnant or parenting girls continue to face barriers to a quality education due to poor education financing, limited infrastructure, and continued stigma and discrimination by teachers, caregivers, and communities. In addition, 17 African states still lack adequate policies altogether or have even adopted punitive and discriminatory measures against adolescent mothers. They deny girls who are pregnant an education or force them to choose poorer quality education in alternative settings away from their peers. Some countries also impose “morality” based penalties and punishments on girls who are reported to have had sexual relationships outside of marriage. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic-related school closures have contributed to increased teenage pregnancies across the continent, with little evidence of government efforts to assist pregnant girls and adolescent mothers with the continuation of their education.

Honorable Chair, Members of the Committee,

In order to protect the right to education of pregnant and parenting students, we recommend that the Committee issue continent-wide Guidelines on the rights of pregnant and parenting students, as well as a General Comment on the right to education. The Guidelines should serve as a model of positive practice for school continuation and reentry across Africa and should explicitly state that pregnant or parenting students have a right to remain in school as long as they choose to and to resume their education free from complex processes for withdrawal and re-enrollment. The Guidelines should also provide guidance to governments on what measures of support are needed for equal access to quality education.

The General Comment on access to education should provide important guidance to governments about their obligations regarding pregnant or parenting students. We request the Committee to convene a Day of General Discussion on the subject to start the process with a decision for the development of the Guidelines and a General Comment.

We ask you to urge governments to repeal legislation and policies that discriminate against pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, including laws that impose criminal charges for sex outside of marriage, as part of the implementation of Decisions and Concluding Observations issued to State Parties. We also recommend that the Committee urge governments to address other barriers to education, including cost, transport, lack of sanitation, and sexual and gender-based violence in schools, by making the necessary human and financial investments.

Thank you.

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