Mariatu Sesay learned she was pregnant when she was just 14. Besides worrying about the social isolation and bullying she would face, one thing scared her more: the fact that she could no longer attend school.
According to Sierra Leonean law, pregnant girls are banned from attending regular school because it is feared they will be too tired to attend classes, they will be bullied and that they will encourage others to get pregnant too. The government created part-time learning centers for pregnant girls to study if they chose to do so.
Despite this, Sesay begged her principal to let her stay and learn. He agreed, and she spent the months leading up to childbirth in the classroom. Her classmates called her names, laughed at her, and tried to rip her uniform, yet Sesay kept trying. “Whenever I showed up everyone would provoke me, but I love education so I summed up the courage to keep going,” she said.
Sesay’s school is the only known school in Sierra Leone that has allowed a pregnant girl to continue attending. The name of the school is being kept private because of the risk of government intervention. Eric Conteh, the principal, could be fired despite growing support from civil rights groups that believe the law is outdated.
The courts recently heard arguments from both sides as to whether they should lift the ban on pregnant students, however, a verdict is not expected until November. The president of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, and his wife, Fatima Jabbie-Bio have worked to create new laws that protect women against sexual violence, but haven’t made any moves to remove the pregnant student ban.
Conteh said that while Sesay was pregnant, a school official visited to inspect the classrooms and was so impressed by Sesay’s success in the classroom that he didn’t report her or Conteh. “There is no reason that a child should be denied her basic human rights just because she’s pregnant. Any pregnant girl who wants to learn is welcome at our school,” Conteh said.
The pregnancy ban hasn’t always been around. It came into effect in 2015 as teenage pregnancies increased after a surge of rapes and the midst of an Ebola crisis.
However, despite the government’s best efforts, the ban negatively affects girls, sometimes with severe consequences. One anonymous 14-year-old was kicked out of school and her home after she revealed she was pregnant. She wishes the ban was reversed so she could study to become a journalist. “Just because someone gets pregnant, it doesn’t mean their life is over,” the girl said.
Sesay is still in school nearly two years after getting pregnant. “If you’re in school, you’re there to learn. If you’re not, you’re just going to get married or get pregnant again,” she said.
Groups like Equality Now are working hard to make sure that future generations of women do not have to face the same struggles and hardships pregnant teenagers face today. It is up to legislators to make the right decision in November.