New local laws being passed by village chiefs in northern Sierra Leone, which decree that when a school girl is impregnated by a male student, both must drop out of school, are causing concern among child protection experts. These laws have been passed by chiefs in parts of Sierra Leone’s northern Bombali district, according to Ramatu Kanu, deputy director of education for the district. Bombali district is made up of 13 chiefdoms.
The laws are designed to build stigma around teenage pregnancy and dissuade girls from becoming pregnant, according to Maud Droogleever Fortuyn, child protection director at the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Sierra Leone. “In these chiefdoms, when a girl becomes pregnant, most boys also drop out. They start doing petty trade, or become okada (motorcycle taxi) drivers,” says student John Amadfoma, (17), who attends school in Makeni, the capital of Bombali district, 140 km north of Freetown.
Teenage pregnancy levels contribute to the low percentage of girls attending secondary school in Sierra Leone, according to Kanu. A mere 17 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys attended secondary school in the period 2000-2007, according to Unicef’s State of the World’s Children Report, 2009. Most girls drop out of school by age 15, mainly because of pregnancy, says Kanu, while boys tend to drop out by age 16.
Local child protection experts speculate pregnancies are caused by voluntary sexual relations among school children, early marriage, transactional sex with adults and other forms of sexual abuse, but Unicef’s Fortuyn says no studies have yet been undertaken. “Unicef is not happy with these (laws) banning pregnant girls and boys who made girls pregnant from school,” says Fortuyn. “Taking children out of school is against their right (to education). Although we recognise the boy needs to bear responsibility too, this is not the way. Why not make his family responsible for ensuring the girls finish secondary school, for instance?”
Education deputy director Kanu calls for more incentives to encourage girls to remain in school. “More girls would stay in school if they had more role models to look up to. We need to reward high-performing girls and hold them up as an example to others. Girls top primary school tests, but then they disappear out of secondary school. It is such a loss for the community.”
Even where laws are not in place, social stigma pressures girls to leave school as soon as they become pregnant, according to Kanu. “In Sierra Leone when you are a teenager and pregnant and unmarried, you are a second-class citizen.”
(Excerpted and adapted from www.irinnews.org)