African countries have taken important steps in recent years to protect the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since 2019, at least five sub-Saharan African countries – Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and São Tomé e Príncipe – have either revoked restrictive or discriminatory policies or adopted laws or policies that allow pregnant students and adolescent mothers to stay in school under certain conditions.
“More African governments are taking stronger actions to support the rights of girls to education,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But many girls still have to fight against enormous government-imposed barriers that deny them their right to education and make schools turn their backs on them when they most need support.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in teenage pregnancies in many African countries, according to United Nations, media, and civil society reports. This increase could be linked to prolonged school closures – all African countries closed their schools in 2020 – and lack of remote learning opportunities during the pandemic, the lack of protective environments, and the loss of access to sexual and reproductive health services.
At least 30 African Union (AU) countries now have laws, policies, or strategies to protect pregnant students and adolescent mothers’ right to education. Sierra Leone reversed its policy in 2020, lifting a discriminatory ban against pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers and adopting a more robust inclusive education policy.
In March 2021 Sierra Leone adopted a policy of “Radical Inclusion” that reaffirms pregnant girls and adolescent mothers’ right to education. It also provides that girls can stay in school during their pregnancy and return to school when they are ready, without imposing burdensome conditions, mandatory maternity leave, or restrictions for their return.
In March 2020 São Tomé e Príncipe revoked a ministerial decree that required pregnant students to study in night-shift schools after the third month of pregnancy and for its duration. This action was tied to a World Bank majority-funded US$15 million grant for the country’s strategy to improve quality education and accelerate girls’ education.
In December 2020 Uganda introduced revised guidelines on pregnancy prevention and management in schools. The policy affirms the right to education of students who are pregnant or are parents, though it places numerous conditions on enrollment. It mandates schools to prioritize readmitting mothers and girls after pregnancy and provides redress for children and parents when public schools refuse to enroll them. It also gives schools guidance to tackle stigma, discrimination, and violence against students who are pregnant or are parents.
However, it also sets out a series of strict “reentry” conditions, including requiring girls to drop out when they are three-months pregnant, and to take a mandatory six-month maternity leave. Human Rights Watch previously found that some of these conditions constitute an effective barrier, particularly as girls will be required to stay out of school for up to a year. The policy relies on effectively compulsory periodic pregnancy testing to detect and prevent pregnancies, violating girls’ rights to privacy, equality, and bodily autonomy.
In 2019 Zimbabwe reformed its Education Act to include a provision that prohibits excluding pregnant students from school. The act also protects students from discrimination on the grounds of marital status, among nearly 20 protected grounds.
In December 2018 Mozambique revoked a national decree that required pregnant students to study in night-shift schools. The government has not yet adopted a policy that ensures girls’ right to remain in school, though, or prescribes how schools should now manage pregnant students and adolescent mothers.
Although Kenya has two older policies that set out conditions for an adolescent mother’s “unconditional” readmission to school, in 2020 the government adopted national reentry guidelines for students who face educational barriers and drop out of school, including due to pregnancy. The policy clarifies that pregnant students can remain in school for as long as possible, and are expected to reenter school at least six months after delivery, at the beginning of the next calendar year.
However, three AU countries still adhere to policies that bar pregnant girls and teenage mothers from going to school. Tanzania maintains an official ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers in public schools, which was strengthened during the presidency of the late John Magufuli.
Pregnant girls are arbitrarily denied the right to study in public primary and lower secondary schools. Adolescent mothers can only study in “alternative education pathways,” a large-scale national education program funded with a $500 million loan from the World Bank. This loan raised concerns regarding the World Bank’s broader commitment to implementing its Environmental and Social Framework, which guarantees that bank loans will not be used to further discrimination, and that World Bank funds will not be used to undermine marginalized groups.
The World Bank should work with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion and accommodation of all girls in public schools, including those who are pregnant or parents. It should use its leverage to work with African governments to remove discriminatory or problematic policies that undermine education progress for all children, and encourage all governments to adopt inclusive, rights-respecting policies, Human Rights Watch said.
Governments that took important, bold steps to remove restrictions and discriminatory provisions in their laws and policies should go one step further and adopt positive measures that fully promote girls’ right to education and that obligate schools to include and support students who are pregnant or parents, Human Rights Watch said. All governments should ensure that their education systems do not discriminate and consider policy revisions to promote girls’ rights to education and their sexual and reproductive rights, including comprehensive sexuality education.
“Numerous African countries are demonstrating leadership in safeguarding every girl’s right to education,” Martinez said. “The African Union should press all African countries to adopt measures to ensure that all schools and government officials have guidance and examples of good practice on creating inclusive public schools where all girls, including those who are pregnant or adolescent mothers, can complete their primary and secondary education.”
Teenage Pregnancies, School Closures During Covid-19 Pandemic
Pre-pandemic, sub-Saharan African countries had the highest adolescent birth rates in the world. The management of the Covid-19 pandemic in many African countries frequently led to prolonged school closures, widespread lack of remote learning options, and limited access to safe spaces for young people. These conditions exacerbated sexual and gender based violence, and significantly disrupted children and young adults’ access to key sexual and reproductive health services, potentially contributing to increases in teenage pregnancies.
Countries in East and Southern Africa have registered high rates of teenage pregnancies. A study of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, led by MIET Africa, a regional organization, shows that between October 2020 and February 2021, six SADC countries – Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – have all recorded high rates of child, early and forced marriages, early pregnancies, and school dropouts.
Increases in teenage pregnancies reported were linked to poverty leading to transactional sex, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, and an increase in sexual violence. Three out of five students surveyed lost access during the pandemic to important sexual and reproductive health services, including to health checkups, condoms and other contraceptives, and anti-retroviral treatment. One out of five youths surveyed was aware of at least one pregnant girl or a young mother under 24 who had given birth during the past six months.
In South Africa, teenage pregnancy rates increased nationally, and in most provinces, from April 2020 and March 2021, compared with previous years. Seven out of nine South African provinces reported higher delivery rates among girls and young women ages 10 to 19, compared with the previous year, according to data from the Department of Basic Education. Gauteng province registered more than 23,000 pregnancies of girls ages 10 to 19, according to data published by the province’s Department of Health.
In Zimbabwe, a parliamentary report to the Senate on August 19 observed that prolonged school closures due to Covid-19 contributed to a “sharp increase” in teenage pregnancies. The Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development reported that during January and February 2021, close to 5,000 students were pregnant, and over 1,770 were forced into marriages.
Recent Reforms in Africa
Sierra Leone has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Africa, with profound consequences for girls’ education: in 2017, 30 percent of women ages 20 to 24 had a live birth before they turned 18. An estimated 20 percent of girls drop out of school due to pregnancy and child marriage, according to government data.
In March 2020 Sierra Leone revoked its 10-year-old ban on public school attendance for pregnant girls and teenage mothers following a decision against the country by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Sierra Leone had been one of four African countries Human Rights Watch found to have a policy barring pregnant students from public schools. In December 2019 the court ruled that the ban was discriminatory and ordered the government to revoke it. The court also found that Sierra Leone’s separate alternative education scheme for pregnant students, with reduced classes and school days, was discriminatory.
In March 2021 Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education adopted a “Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools,” reinforcing pregnant girls and adolescent parents’ right to education, and outlining conditions for their “continuation” in education.
Sierra Leone’s new policy protects a girl’s right to “remain in school, in her current class, for as long as she chooses before giving birth, and to return to school after delivery or loss of the child.” It also states that girls have a “right of protected absence from school for one year after giving birth or miscarrying,” providing girls with a choice to take maternity leave, rather than imposing compulsory maternity leave. The policy says girls should be supported to make up for lost lessons and have the right to take examinations, and are able to delay school examinations until such a time as they are physically and psychologically able to take them.
As part of its strategy to prevent teenage pregnancies, the policy commits to ensuring that the curriculum includes “different components” of comprehensive sexuality education, and to facilitate adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Teenage pregnancy, parenthood, and child marriage are a major health and social concern in Uganda and constitute a significant barrier for girls’ education. According to national and UN data, 25 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 19 have begun childbearing, 34 percent of girls are married before age 18, and over 7 percent before age 15. According to UNICEF, 25 percent of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually are in adolescent girls, with more than 300,000 pregnancies ending in unsafe abortions.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, UNICEF reported a 23 percent increase in pregnancy among girls ages 10 to 24 seeking prenatal care. Many girls drop out of school permanently once they become parents, due in part to stigma in schools, the lack of support and accommodation for students who are parents, and financial barriers. School fees and other costs in public schools constitute a significant barrier for Uganda’s most economically vulnerable and poorest families, most of whom have faced financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 restrictions that prevented many adults from working.
In December 2020 Uganda’s Ministry of Education published its “Revised Guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings,” providing a policy framework to clarify schools’ roles.
The revised guidelines include important policy reforms. They provide an unequivocal message that “all schools should prioritize the admission of the young mothers/girls after pregnancy and parents/caregivers shall report the school that has refused to admit their daughter to the district education officer.” This provision is crucial for education authorities to ensure that all schools recognize their obligation to re-enrol adolescent mothers and provide redress for children and parents when public schools refuse re-enrollment. The Ugandan government should widely promote this aspect of the policy, and disseminate information about girls’ education through community awareness and national campaigns.
Under the policy, once schools are notified or find out that a student is pregnant, they should ensure that the student is placed in a counselling program. Head teachers are to take measures to investigate and report allegations of sexual violence. The policy also says that stigma and discrimination against pregnant girls or young mothers is a form of psychological violence, and orders schools to counter such stigma and violence in school environments. The policy stipulates that schools “shall support adolescent mothers to link to community support structures for childcare, and economic support.” The guidelines also provide flexibility to allow students who are out on maternity leave to take end-of-year examinations should they wish to, but it remains compulsory for students to take national qualifying examinations.
Although the guidelines support girls’ right to education, they present a series of strict or burdensome “re-entry” conditions that, Human Rights Watch had previously found, could constitute an effective barrier for girls. For example, the guidelines require girls to go on mandatory maternity leave when they are at least three-months’ pregnant. They can only be unconditionally readmitted when their child is at least six months old. This means girls will effectively be out of school for at least a year.
The policy makes parents responsible for seeking a girl’s readmission. Parents are expected to sign an agreement with the school about the girl’s re-entry. This assumes that parents are largely supportive of girls’ continuing education, whereas some families may try to bar girls from returning to school, particularly in cases of child marriage.
Male students responsible for a student’s pregnancy will also be given mandatory leave during a girl’s pregnancy, citing that this “might act as a deterrent and lesson to other boys.” However, unlike girls, boys are not subject to mandatory paternity leave, and will be allowed to return to school after a girl has delivered. In the case of a school change, schools are expected to share information on a male student’s parenthood status with the new school, because this would be “useful in tracking him.”
Data on any students’ pregnancy or parenthood status should respect their right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said. It should only be shared confidentially in school records as a means to support a student, to provide adequate counselling and access to services, and to accommodate their individual needs.
The guidelines state that the government’s aim to prevent teenage pregnancies through a series of measures, including problematic measures like relying on periodic pregnancy testing in schools, as well as testing all female students to avoid individual stigma against a girl who is reported or rumored to be pregnant. Human Rights Watch has found that pregnancy testing is not a preventive tool. It is stigmatizing for many girls, is often carried out without their consent, and is a serious infringement of girls’ rights to privacy, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy.
São Tomé e Príncipe
In 2019, 22 percent of young women in São Tomé e Príncipe had given birth by age 18, of whom 5 percent had given birth before the age of 15, according to UNICEF data. Thirty-five percent of girls are married by age 18 between 2005 and 2019, according to the UN Population Fund.
Teenage pregnancies are closely tied to widespread sexual and gender-based violence, as well as entrenched abusive practices like the sexual exploitation of girls by adult men, including teachers, in exchange for grades, money or basic items, particularly at the Secondary school level.
In 2012 one of the last years where data is available, 86 percent of pregnant adolescent girls dropped out of primary and secondary school. A national study showed that pregnancy was among the top reasons why girls dropped out, contributing to worrying levels of transition into, and retention in, secondary education.
In March 2020 São Tomé e Príncipe removed a nearly 15-year restriction that blocked thousands of adolescent girls from secondary education. São Tomé e Príncipe’s Disciplinary Regulations for Basic, Secondary and Professional Education of 2006, in article 36, required pregnant students to drop out of schools at the third month of their pregnancy, and only gave them an option to enroll in night schools for the remainder of the pregnancy. Students could re-enroll the following academic year, provided that the student’s age was in line with compulsory education age limits. The same conditions were enforceable for boys responsible for a student’s pregnancy.
Education Minister Julieta Rodrigues signed a ministerial decree ordering the effective removal of article 36 from the Disciplinary Regulations. The decree cites its compliance with agreements made under the “Girls Empowerment and Quality Education for All Project,” a combined World Bank and Global Partnership for Education grant of $15 million to increase girls’ access to quality secondary education.
However, the government has yet to initiate a process to adopt measures that confirm a girl’s right to stay in school, and to provide clear guidance to schools on their obligations to enroll and support students who are pregnant or are parents.
The World Bank’s project documents show the Bank’s ability to use its unique leverage, and that of other donors and development partners, to negotiate the removal of São Tomé e Príncipe’s exclusionary practice against pregnant students. It states that the project:
leverages a change in legislation which allows pregnant girls to attend regular schooling, which they were previously barred from doing by school level regulation. This change in the internal regulation of schools was possible due to strong World Bank and other donor policy dialogue, including advocacy and stakeholder consultations, during the preparation of this project.
The World Bank said that the:
change in the internal regulation provides a great opportunity not only to get girls back to school and stay in school, but to jump-start interventions that will lead to behavioral change in the medium to longer term.
The World Bank estimates that 5,500 pregnant students stop going to school every year in Tanzania, although previous estimates indicated that close to 8,000 students have been forced to drop out of school each year.
In 2019 and 2020 the World Bank approved a $500 million loan for Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program, despite the government’s policy of expelling pregnant students and adolescent mothers from school. By approving the loan to Tanzania, the World Bank effectively endorsed a discriminatory ban, which further cements exclusion and loss of education for thousands of girls in the country.
After initial pressure from the World Bank, the government agreed to allow adolescent mothers to enroll in Alternative Education Pathways, a parallel system of education taught in folk development centers, community-based education centers that are set up to teach technical and vocational education and accelerated adult basic education. This type of education is not tuition free, and it is currently the only way pregnant girls, adolescent mothers, and married students can study, unless they pay to enroll in private schools.
In March Leonard Akwilapo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, announced that 54 folk development centers would begin to enroll pregnant girls and adolescent mothers as of January 2022.
Practice across the African Union
In 2018 Human Rights Watch found that at least 26 African Union countries had laws, policies or strategies in place to guarantee girls’ right to go back to school after pregnancy. In 2021 at least 30 AU countries now have laws, policies, or strategies in place that protect pregnant students’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education to varying degrees.
African Union policies and laws on pregnant students and adolescent mothers
Countries with “re-entry policies” and policies that prescribe conditions for pregnant students and adolescent mothers, including mandatory maternity leave
Countries with policies or strategies that provide for “continuation”
Countries with national laws related to pregnant students’ and mothers’ right to education
Countries that have recently removed restrictive policies, but have a policy gap
Democratic Republic of Congo
São Tomé e Príncipe