Panafrican News Agency

Rights group says AU guidance, policy reforms needed to ensure young mothers stay in school

Nairobi, Kenya (PANA) – 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 on Tuesday.

However, it said, most African governments 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, it said in a statement.

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, the human rights watchdog said.

“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 Ado Radhakrihnan, 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 said it reviewed over 100 laws and policies relating to education, gender equity strategies, and sexual and reproductive health policies and plans across the AU.

It said 38 out of 54 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In March 2022, Togo repealed a 1978 circular that banned pregnant students and adolescent mothers from schools. In 2019, Niger repealed a law that temporarily excluded girls who became pregnant and permanently expelled married students from school, and replaced it with a new policy that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.

The statement said 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 Libya, Mauritania 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 dishonour 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.

Human Rights Watch said the AU, 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.

"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 also 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.”

-0- PANA MA 30Aug2022