Sierra Leone’s battle to keep pregnant girls in schoolWed, 21 Jun 2023 06:16:02 GMT

Hawa used to relish competing with her cousin for top marks in school until, eight months ago, she fell pregnant.”We studied hard together,” the slight 18-year-old told AFP. “I was one of the top girls in the class.”In Sierra Leone, where pregnant girls have been allowed in classrooms since a ban was lifted in 2020, the news should not have halted Hawa’s education. However, like other progressive policies introduced under President Julius Maada Bio, keeping pregnant girls in school has been easier said than done.Hawa was mercilessly taunted by other students, and her mother stopped sending her money for supplies and uniforms.She ended up dropping out of school at six months pregnant, forced to watch her cousin advance alone.Bio, who is seeking a second term in office in Saturday’s presidential election, made education and women’s rights the main pillars of his presidency.He admitted to AFP in an interview that he at first resisted allowing pregnant teens to go to school.”I was totally opposed to that a few years back, but I realised I was wrong,” Bio said. “They are in their formative years, and if we punish them for the rest of their life, you have been unfair to them, and you have been unfair to society.”- ‘Cycles of poverty’ -Teen pregnancy is widespread in Sierra Leone, and a lack of data makes it hard to measure how many girls are staying in school.In 2021, a year after the ban was overturned, the national school census identified 950 visibly pregnant girls in schools across the country. A 2019 government survey found that 21 percent of women and girls aged 15 to 19 were pregnant or had already given birth — indicating tens of thousands may have dropped out. Nadia Rasheed, country representative for the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA), said keeping girls in school was “critical to breaking cycles of poverty and inequality in Sierra Leone”.Kadi, 18, a new mother, had hoped that education would be her ticket to a better life.She was raised by her grandmother and an older sister in Freetown’s Cockle Bay slum, and both pushed her hard in her studies.Then her grandmother died in a car accident. Two years later, her older sister fell ill and died too.Her boyfriend, a fisherman, began helping with her school expenses — they planned for her to study medicine and then they would marry.”I want to be a remarkable somebody in society,” Kadi said.But when she became pregnant at 17, she could not stand the bullying at school. She failed some of her exams and did not return the following academic year.She hopes to resit her exams next year, but is worried she will have fallen too far behind.”Communities are not going to change just like that — schools are not going to change just like that — I don’t think anyone should have expected overnight success,” said Regina Mamidy Yillah, a researcher.”But that being said, the overturned ban… is really a gigantic step for equality.”- Expectation meets reality -The challenge reflects those affecting several progressive policies introduced by Bio’s government.On the one hand, they are hailed by Western NGOs and UN agencies that have been omnipresent in Sierra Leone since its 1991-2002 civil war.But in reality, they collide with traditional values or have fallen short of expectations.Bio’s government hands out free sanitary pads to students, and has invested more than 20 percent of the budget into education.But many are disappointed that what was branded as a “free” education policy has not translated into access for all.Students must still pay for some textbooks, plus transportation, uniforms, shoes, socks and school supplies, which can be prohibitively expensive.Many teachers informally charge students for soap, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and demand cash handouts on a daily or weekly basis under threat of flogging, according to families AFP met.Plans to decriminalise abortion, lauded internationally when they were announced last July, have not progressed.In January, Bio signed a new gender equality law to boost the number of women in the public and private sectors.While many had hoped for a 30-percent quota for woman MPs, the gender act only requires that a third of parliamentary candidates are women.The president, it states, may consider “the possibility” of appointing a 30-percent female cabinet.The Institute for Governance Reform, a survey group, forecasts that between 26 and 30 percent of MPs elected to the new parliament will be women.President Bio told AFP he was “committed” to ensuring a minimum of 30 percent of MPs are women.”That is food for thought as to how we will do that,” he said.