(Nairobi) – Adolescent girls in nearly one-third of African countries who are pregnant face significant legal and policy barriers to continuing their formal education, Human Rights Watch said today. Most African governments, however, now protect education access through laws, policies, or measures for pregnant students or adolescent mothers.

A new Human Rights Watch interactive index and comprehensive compilation of laws and policies related to teenage pregnancy in schools across the African Union (AU) detail the laws and policies in place, as well as the shortcomings, to protect girls’ access to education. Human rights compliant frameworks are necessary first steps to protecting girls’ access to education, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should invest in implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of policies at the school level. Without such measures, tens of thousands of students across Africa will continue to be excluded.

“Many pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in Africa are still denied their basic right to education for reasons that have nothing to do with their desire and ability to learn,” said Adi Radhakrishnan, Leonard H. Sandler fellow in the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities shouldn’t arbitrarily withdraw girls’ access to education as a punishment for becoming pregnant.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed over 100 laws and policies relating to education, gender equity strategies, and sexual and reproductive health policies and plans across the AU.

Thirty-eight out of fifty-four African countries have laws, policies, or measures that protect adolescent girls’ education during pregnancy and motherhood. Some of these countries recently overturned negative policies. In March 2022, Togo repealed a 1978 circular that banned pregnant students and adolescent mothers from schools. In 2019, Niger repealed a law that temporarily excluded girls who became pregnant and permanently expelled married students from school, and replaced it with a new policy that explicitly protects their right to education.

At least 10 AU members have no laws or policies related to the retention of students who are pregnant or are adolescent mothers in schools. Many also lack or have inadequate policies to prevent and manage adolescent pregnancies, undermining children’s right to sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to access reproductive health care and comprehensive sexuality education.

Many of these are countries in North Africa or the Horn of Africa with problematic laws and policies that make sexual behavior outside of marriage a criminal offense, which can interfere with girls’ right to education. Most countries in the region lack policies related to the management of teenage pregnancies and treatment of pregnant students in schools.

In LibyaMauritania, and Morocco, girls and women who have sexual relationships outside of marriage risk heavy penalties and criminal punishments. Elsewhere in North Africa, girls and women with children born outside of marriage are often perceived as bringing dishonor to their families. Girls in these situations might not be allowed or able to stay in school since they would be exposed to public ridicule and social stigma.

Other African governments have adopted measures with a child protection lens designed to tackle teenage pregnancy, but such measures are often insufficient to ensure access to education for girls. In Congo (Brazzaville), authorities have claimed that they guarantee re-entry for students after childbirth by, among other measures, bringing criminal charges against men who impregnate women and girls under the age of 21.

Criminal penalties for consensual sexual relations between adults or between children of similar ages violate fundamental rights to privacy and nondiscrimination, but also do little to affirmatively protect education rights for affected students, Human Rights Watch found. Pregnant students or adolescent mothers continue to experience discrimination and exclusion in the absence of additional policies that explicitly protect education access, and address social, financial, or academic barriers to continuing formal schooling.

The African Union, under its directorate of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation, should work with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion of girls in public schools, Human Rights Watch said. It should press governments to review existing laws, remove problematic policies that undermine education rights for all children, and adopt measures that are consistent with their human rights obligations – all while drawing on the good practices tested by many of its members.

The AU should encourage all its members to respect, protect, and fulfill adolescents’ rights to sexual and reproductive health. It should ensure that pregnant or parenting students are allowed to remain in school for as long as they choose, are able to continue their education free from complex or burdensome processes for withdrawal and re-entry, and have access to adequate financial and social support to complete their education.

“Although many African countries have adopted laws and policies that relate to girls’ education, many still lack the specific frameworks that allow for pregnant students and adolescent mothers to stay in school or continue their education free from discriminatory barriers,” Radhakrishnan said. “The African Union should provide clear guidance to governments and urge all its members to adopt human rights compliant policies that ensure students can continue their education during pregnancy and motherhood.”

Source: Human Rights Watch

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