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The government of Sierra Leone is attracting global recognition and celebrating its policies and commitments toward advancing and securing access to education for girls, in particular pregnant girls and young mothers. Many of them had been excluded from education due to a longstanding ban on visibly-pregnant girls attending school.[1]

On March 30, 2020, Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio, together with Basic and Senior Secondary Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh, announced the immediate end to this ban. Often referred to as a 10-year ban, the practice in fact existed informally long before a government memorandum formalized the ban in 2010.[2] It served to deprive girls of their right to education and push them to the fringes of their communities, while also reinforcing patriarchal beliefs and negative narratives about adolescent girls.

Sierra Leone’s government formally lifted the ban on visibly-pregnant girls in 2021 with the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, co-developed by the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and an active civil society working group, which included Purposeful. The policy explicitly acknowledged that some populations of children and adolescents are systematically excluded from school, including pregnant girls and young mothers.

Specifically, the policy states:

In practice, this goal means actively enabling those from marginalized and excluded groups to enter and remain in school until completion. It means adapting the education system to better meet their learning needs - ensuring school is a place of dignity, safety, and respect for all - while systematically reducing cultural, policy and practical barriers to education. Finally, it means developing the institutional structures, staff and tools necessary to support radical inclusion.[3]

On April 24, 2023, Sierra Leone’s parliament passed the revised Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, 2023 into law, which references inclusive education and includes aspects of  the Radical Inclusion Policy. Article 19 of the act states that, “Pregnant girls, parent learners, children from the poorest homes, rural areas and underserved communities shall be encouraged to access, stay in, complete school and enjoy all the facilities provided in the school,” and that there should be “no discrimination between pupils in the matter of their admission to and treatment in educational institutions throughout Sierra Leone.”

For the past several years, the Sierra Leone government has made it clear that education is a national priority. In August 2018, it introduced the Free Quality Education Programme, which aims to reduce financial barriers to accessing education, including abolishing school and exam fees, while also increasing access to school meals programs.[4] In subsequent years, the government significantly increased spending in the education sector. Speaking at the United Nations Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, President Bio stated that:

[W]e raised our domestic investment. We raised education’s share of the domestic budget to 20 percent. School fees and exam fees are now a thing of the past in our government-supported schools. We have expanded school feeding and hired thousands of new teachers and increased their salaries even during COVID.[5]

These commitments are in line with Sierra Leone’s obligations under international and regional human rights treaties. The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right to free and compulsory primary education.[6] The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child calls on states to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that children who become pregnant before completing their education shall have an opportunity to continue their education on the basis of their individual ability.”[7]

In December 2021, Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with Purposeful, a feminist hub for girls’ activism, rooted in Africa and working all around the world, conducted interviews with pregnant and non-pregnant girls and young mothers in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province to hear from them about their experiences accessing education. The National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools was in its infancy when we started this research. Over the last year, we have reflected on the meaning of our findings against the backdrop of progressive education policies in place in Sierra Leone, and are reminded of the importance of listening to the girls at the center of the Radical Inclusion commitments to make genuine progress.

This briefing paper focuses on a few key issues that emerged from Human Rights Watch’s interviews with girls and young women in Northern Sierra Leone and also draws on Purposeful’s data and information from years of working to support and empower girls, in particular out-of-school girls and young women.[8] It serves as a reminder that commitments do not translate to transformation overnight and that the government, together with the donor community and civil society groups are still on a long journey towards realizing radical inclusion. All of us should listen to what girls who are excluded from education tell us and to be guided by the actual circumstances of their lives to fully realize the possibilities of Radical Inclusion for all of Sierra Leone’s children.

Girls in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province

Sierra Leone’s Northern Province has the highest rate of poverty, 77 percent, in the country, according to a December 2022 World Bank report. Falaba, in the far northeast, is one of the country’s poorest districts.[9] Child marriage rates are highest among the poorest fifth of rural girls (57 percent), and child marriage rates are over 40 percent in Northern Province (as well as Eastern and Southern Provinces), according to a 2022 UNESCO education sector analysis.[10] According to Sierra Leone’s Demographic and Health Survey of 2019, by district, the percentage of women with a secondary education or higher is just 3 percent in Falaba district, the second lowest in the country.[11] Similarly, a survey conducted by Purposeful in October 2020 found that 72 percent of out-of-school adolescent girls interviewed in Falaba had never been to school.[12]

Girls want to go to school

Across the interviews, we learned that girls very much want to be in school, yet they face systemic barriers to accessing education, including financial obstacles, stigma, bullying, and discrimination based on pregnancy, and lack of access to childcare.

“I’m married. I got pregnant and am living with my husband,” said a 13-year-old girl in Kabala. “I feel bad I’m not going to school. I regret not going when my sister said she could support me. … My sister doesn’t have anything now.” [13]

Another girl from Kabala said she felt other children insulted her because she did not attend school. Her family could not afford it. “I don’t know where to look for help for someone who can help me to go to school,” she said. “Other children say, ‘You don’t know anything. You don’t even go to school!’ It makes you feel really sad.” [14] 

A 14-year-old girl with a 7-month-old baby said, “I was in class 6 in 2020. I did not sit the NPSE [National Primary School Examination]. I was 6-months’ pregnant when I left school. It was showing. I chose to leave to school because I was pregnant and it was showing.”

“I left school in 2020,” said one adolescent, 19, from the Bombali district. “I did not sit the final BECE [Basic Education Certification Examination] exams because I was pregnant.”[15]

Some girls cited a lack of childcare as an obstacle to return to school after giving birth. One girl in Kabala, who had a baby, said, “I want to go, but I really don’t think I can go back to school. I would have to leave my child with my husband because there is no money [for childcare].”[16]

One young mother, 19, in secondary school in the Bombali district, said that she continues to attend school, despite harassment she experiences from her peers. She said, “I don’t feel good about being in school. I am only going for the end of term exams. People provoke me. My friends bully me. They say I should not be in school around them.”[17]

Purposeful has documented many similar experiences from girls who participate in their Girls’ Circles Collectives, which are autonomous groups that bring together girls to develop life skills, strategize for individual and social change, among other actions. They are led by young women mentors from the same communities and have reached over 15,000 out-of-school adolescent girls since 2020.[18] Girls who participate in these groups say that they have “dropped out” of school, yet Purposeful has concluded that the legacy of the ban on visibly-pregnant girls in school and the associated stigma that remains pushes girls out of school and deters them from returning. 

Lack of information about Free Quality Education Program and financial obstacles

In August 2018, Sierra Leone launched a phased Free Quality School Education initiative that provides free admission and tuition to all children in government-approved schools.  The program should ensure that “all core costs for formal and non-formal school education are covered by the Government of Sierra Leone and requires parents/guardians to take responsibility for ancillary costs according to the ability to pay.”[19] Families still pay for some services not covered by the government, and some schools charge unofficial fees.[20] These costs increase with progression from primary to secondary school.[21]

The girls we spoke with did not have sufficient information about the government mechanisms in place to support some of the core costs of education. Costs of school was a barrier for them to go to school, remain there, or, for girls who are also mothers, to return after giving birth. In one group interview with seven girls in Kabala, five said that poverty compelled them to drop out of primary or secondary school. The other two girls had never been to school at all.

One adolescent with a 3-month-old baby said that before her pregnancy, she failed her exams, and could not afford to retake them. “I have not retaken the school exams because I have no money to pay for the exams,” she said. “My Granny supports me with my child but cannot pay my school costs. I want to return when I get the money.” [22]

A 15-year-old girl said that she left in her second year of secondary school, in October 2020: “I didn’t have money for all the items. I have a brother and sister going to secondary school.  I was told by my parents to wait for them to finish [their exams].”[23]

“Some parents are not financially strong to support their children, so the children are unable to go to school,” said a 17-year-old girl. “When they are asked to leave because of fees, they become ashamed and no longer go.” [24]

“I left in 2019. I was about to take my WASSCE [West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination]but there was no money for me to take the exam, so I had to drop out,” said another 17-year-old girl.[25]

A young woman, 18, who sat for the BECE after she had her baby and wanted to continue her education could not. By contrast, the father of the baby remained in school. “I passed well to go to senior secondary. My aunt said she does not have money. The father of the child … remained in school and was about to take his WASSCE,” she said.[26]

Purposeful has also found that costs, including school and exam fees, are frequently cited as a key reason for girls not being in school. As part of Purposeful’s Girls’ Circle Collectives, collectives of girls receive grants that they use collectively to fund their dreams and goals, such as starting or strengthening a business or a savings program, serving as a safety net for girls in times of emergency or helping cover the costs for girls to return to school. Purposeful’s experience has demonstrated that when girls have access and autonomy over resources, they can return to school. According to one Purposeful mentor working in Falaba, “The girls have money now to meet their needs, buy school materials.”[27]

Other mentors echoed this: “Since we got the grants, girls have now hope that they will return to school from the collective cash. I have a plan to send seven girls to school, and that is the biggest change that will happen in their lives,” said one, from Bonthe.[28] A mentor from Fabala said, “We will use the money to send girls back to school.”[29]

Girls face sexual exploitation when trying to meet their basic needs, including school costs

Poverty does not just keep girls out of school, it often contributes to their pregnancies, as they seek resources to meet their basic needs in order to survive. Numerous girls described how the need for financial support meant that they felt pressured or coerced into having sex with men who provide them with food, clothing, or other material support.

One girl, 16, living in Kabala said, “I was going to school. There was no one to help me, and the man was helping me. He feeds me and gave me anything I wanted. I had wanted to go to school but I didn’t have support. I did not tell him I didn’t want sex.” She became pregnant and dropped out of school.[30]

Another girl, also 16, from the Bombali district, who was pregnant, said, “I met this man, a tailor, and he said if I accept him, he will support me. He bought me food, clothes, etc. …He said if I keep refusing [sex], he will not help me, so I accepted.” She remained in school, despite bullying, saying, “They laugh at me [at] school, but I don’t care. I got pregnant because of circumstances, but I will go to school.”[31]

A 17-year-old girl who gave birth to her daughter at age 14, said that she dropped out of school and got married after learning she was pregnant. “I was going to school but I didn’t get [financial] help, so I decided to marry instead of being out on the streets. … I’m not happy because the man cannot provide everything … and I have no education or skills to help myself.”[32]

“I was brought up by my grandmother, who is very old,” said one young woman with a baby, who had dropped out of school. “I got pregnant and decided to stay with the man so that I don’t over burden my grandma.”[33]

In a Purposeful survey of 100 out-of-school girls in Sierra Leone in October 2020, 45 percent said that girls have sex in exchange for money, food, or other essentials.[34] As one girl, 17, in the Western Area Rural said, “There are different reasons that lead to girls getting pregnant. Maybe they were raped, or maybe they had to have sex to survive. It is not their fault and should not cause them to drop out of school. Some girls are shy to go back but they have hopes of being successful in the future so they go back anyway.”[35]

Limited access to accurate sexual and reproductive health information and services

Girls and young women we spoke with talked about their access to contraception and information about contraception.

A girl, 14, said that she knew about contraceptives, but was not using them when she became pregnant. “My mum said not to use them because I was young,” she said.[36]

One girl, 16, who was nine-months’ pregnant, said that she had tried some forms of contraception, but stopped, explaining: “I got information from the hospital. I took an injection and it gave me heavy menses; the patch made me very dry; condoms -- they have no information for us about condoms.”[37]

A 19-year-old who was eight-months’ pregnant said, “I used the injection, but I stopped because … it gives me problems. I didn’t know I would get pregnant when I stopped.”[38]

One girl said that she had tried an implant and injections but she didn’t like the way she felt when using them and so stopped. Regarding condoms she said, “I am just afraid of it. In school they [other girls] said they used it and it stayed in [their vaginas] and got stuck.” [39]

“I was scared because people were telling me if I use a patch or injections, I will not have kids in the future. My step-mum and people around her were telling me that,” said one girl, 17, who was six-months’ pregnant.[40]

One 16-year-old girl said, “I was not using [contraception]. Before I got to hear about it, I was already pregnant.”[41]

Purposeful’s experience supporting girls across Sierra Leone reaffirms that girls have limited access to accurate information and services about contraception, which plays a key role in the pregnancies that force them out of the formal education system.[42]

Girls need supportive environments to stay in or return to school

Another serious barrier to staying in or returning to schools is stigma and harassment of girls who are poor and girls who are mothers. A March 2022 Learning and School Safety study found that:

In general, pupils who [experience] disability, poverty, pregnancy or motherhood, are more likely to face harassment and abuse in schools than other pupils. Discrimination against pupils from relatively poor households is particularly common as nearly four in ten pupils (38 percent) agreed that this happens in school. … 25 percent said pregnant and parenting girls were also targets for abuse.

Harassment and abuse was linked in some cases to girls dropping out of school or shifting to other schools to escape the situation.[43]

A teenage girl with a baby told Human Rights Watch about stigma and harassment: “Girls feel ashamed if they are in class and peers laugh at them. My sister was going to school and they laughed at her and she stopped going.”[44]

However, where girls experience a supportive environment, even amidst harassment, they find it easier to remain in school. One girl, 16, in secondary school in the Bombali district, said that a counselor provided emotional support for her to continue her studies: “I was stressed going to school when pregnant. She encouraged me. She also shared her story of being pregnant when she was in school. [She] says she was chased away, and she encouraged me [to stay].” The girl intended to finish her studies and take the national exam even though people teased and bullied her. “They say I should not be in school around them,” she said.[45]

A girl in the third year of secondary school said, “[The students] torment and provoke me. They say, ‘A schoolgirl is pregnant!’ But I have support from my teachers and my community; that’s why I don’t take [the teasing] seriously.”[46]


Human Rights Watch’s efforts to listen to the voices and share the experience of girls from Northern Sierra Leone as well as Purposeful’s work over many years reaffirm many of the barriers for them to access education. The Sierra Leone government has sought to address these barriers through several programs and policies, including the Radical Inclusion Policy and the Free Quality Education Programme, and now the new Education Act.

Girls’ voices reveal that change will not happen overnight but requires deep cultural shifts, starting in their homes and communities, and in the formal school setting. Shifts that enable girls to feed themselves and their families, without drawing value from their bodies; shifts that see the men exploiting girls prosecuted; shifts that see schools become places of safety and dignity; and, ultimately, shifts that see girls realize their own power and take up their rightful places in schools, regardless of their parental status.

The government of Sierra Leone has made significant commitments to advancing girls’ access to education. At the same time, we urge the government to take additional steps to translate the ambitions of the Radical Inclusion Policy into practice.

We encourage the government of Sierra Leone to:

  • Continue to prioritize girls’ access to education, focusing in particular on those historically most marginalized and at risk of exclusion;
  • Ensure the voices and lived experiences of girls and others directly affected by the policy and Education Act remain central in implementation, learning, assessment, and evaluation;
  • Increase resources to ensure girls, especially girls who are pregnant, girls who are mothers, and girls with disabilities, can access education without cost or other barriers;
  • Ensure all girls are aware of their rights under both the Radical Inclusion Policy and the Free Quality Education Programme, including through community outreach and awareness-raising and mandatory information provided in school;
  • Work closely with community leaders to build an environment of support and encouragement for girls to remain in or return to the classroom;
  • Work with other key governmental departments including the Ministry of Health to ensure strong coordination on reproductive health legislation, policy, and practice;
  • Guarantee joint learning, assessment, and evaluation between government and civil society on the impact of the Radical Inclusion Policy, in the spirit in which the policy was developed; and
  • Publicly share and communicate the results of the learning and evaluation, reflecting on both success and challenges.

[1] Amnesty International, “Shamed and Blamed: Pregnant Girls’ Rights at Risk in Sierra Leone,” November 6, 2015,

[2] In its 2004 report, Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation commission stated "The practice of expelling girls who become pregnant from educational institutions is discriminatory and archaic." Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Witness to Truth: Report of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2004 ,

[3] Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education of Sierra Leone, National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, March 2021,, p. 19.

[4] Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education of Sierra Leone, National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, March 2021,, p. 12.

[5] “President Bio Addresses UN Transforming Education Summit,” September 19, 2022,𝐏𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐧𝐭-𝐁𝐢𝐨-𝐀𝐝𝐝𝐫-2/

[6] Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1998, entry into force September 2, 1990,, art. 28. Ratified by Sierra Leone on June 18, 1990.

[7] African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 1990, entered into force, July 29, 1999,, art. 11 (6). Ratified by Sierra Leone on June 18, 2002.

[8] These sources have been collected from 2020 to 2023. Some of the reports referenced can be found on Purposeful’s website, while other data cited is drawn from mentors’ reflections, partner reports, observations and dialogue with girls.

[9] World Bank, Sierra Leone Poverty Assessment, December 2022,

[10] UNICEF, IIEP-UNESCO, “Education sector analysis: assessing the enabling environment for gender equality,” Republic of Sierra Leone, Dakar 2020, pp. 91 and 204.

[11] Figure 3.3 Secondary education by district Percentage of women ages 15-49 with a secondary education or higher. Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats SL) and ICF. 2020. Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey 2019. Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: Stats SL and ICF.

[12] Purposeful, “The State of Out of School Girls in Sierra Leone,” 2021,

[13] Human Rights Watch group interview with girls, ages 10 to 15, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[14] Human Rights Watch group interview with girls, ages 10 to 15, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with Isatou Kamara, 19, December 8, 2021.

[16] Human Rights Watch group interview with girls, ages 10 to 15, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima A. Kamara, December 9, 2021.


[19] Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, FQSE- Free Quality School Education,

[20] International Development Association, Project Appraisal Document on a Proposed Grant to the Government of Sierra Leone for a Free Education Project, June 5, 2020,; and UNESCO, Republic of Sierra Leone: Education sector analysis: assessing the enabling environment for gender equality, 2020,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview Bombali district, Mannah community, December 8, 2021.

[23] Human Rights Watch group interview with girls, ages 10 to 15, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[24] Purposeful interview with girl, 17, Western Area Rural, March 2023.

[25] Purposeful interview with girl, 17, Western Area Rural, March 2023.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with Saudatu Kamara, 18, December 8, 2021.

[27] Purposeful interview with Purposeful Mentor, Falaba, May 2022.

[28] Purposeful interview with Mentor, Bonthe, June 2022.

[29] Purposeful interview with Mentor, Falaba, November 2022.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview, primary school, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview, New England Community, Bombali district, December 9, 2021.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview, primary school, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[33] Human Rights Watch group interview with girls and young women, ages 17 to 23, Makama, Bombali district, December 8, 2021.


[35] Purposeful interview with girl, 17, Western Area Rural, March 2023.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Mariatu Bangura, 14, Bombali district, December 8, 2021.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview, DCE School, Kabala, December 7, 2021.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview, New England community, Bombali district, December 9, 2021.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview, Mannah, Bombali district, December 9, 2021.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview, Mannah, Bombali district, December 8, 2021.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview, DCE Primary School, Falaba district, December 7, 2021.

[42] See, for example, Purposeful, “The State of Out-of-School girls in Sierra Leone,” October 2021,

[43] Leh Wi Lan, “Learning and School Safety (LASS) Study 2022 Briefing Note,” March 3, 2022,

[44] Human Rights Watch group interview with girls and young women, ages 17 to 23, Makama, Bombali district, December 8, 2021.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview, New England Community, Bombali district, December 9, 2021.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview, Bombali district, December 9, 2021.

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