There is a fire on the mountain

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by feima sesay.

There’s a fire on the mountain but nobody seems to be on the run’ but the question now is what has caused the fire on the mountain?

According to an article on Equality Now the case of Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES) v Republic of Sierra Leone was filed with the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice on May 17th 2019. According to the ECOWAS Court of Justice, the case was listed for a hearing on its merits on June 25th 2019 and has been listed for judgement on the 20th November 2019. The case has been brought because despite several attempts by various pro-human rights organisation including amnesty international (that has been included as a friend of the case) the government of Sierra Leone has failed to repeal the arbitrary ban on pregnant children attending secondary school. The ban was initially imposed under president Ernest Bai Koroma of the APC Party as an emergency reaction to the increase in child pregnancies following the Ebola crisis where many orphaned children became pregnant due to the absence of parental care and protection.

The current SLPP government led by Julius Maada-Bio are not without blame in this matter, despite instituting significant policy changes to and educate and protect young girls. The Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone recently launched a campaign aimed at protecting young girls from sexual violence and female genital mutilation which was aptly named ‘hands-off our girls’. This campaign was supported by our President instituting emergency measures to protect young girls from sexual violence. However, according to an article on Equality Now in the preliminary stages of the claim court representatives of the current government sought to have the case dismissed on the basis that one of the applicants lacked the competency to appear before the court. Evidently, despite the well-inteded efforts of the government of Sierra Leone, in protecting young girls from sexual violence there does not seem to be genuine effort to support all young girls after the fact consider that the ban is still in place. Theretofore it is important this case has been brought and will be decided before a neutral court. For those of us that subscribe to the school of thought of political economist George Ayittey of ‘African solutions to African problems,’ the determination by the ECOWAS Court of Justice will provide that. I am confident that their Lordships Hon. Justice Edward Amoako Asante, Hon. Justice Gberi-Be Ouattara and Hon. Justice Januaria Tavares Silva Moreira Costa will pass a judgement that is fair, just and grants the victims of this abhorrent ban the social justice and respect of their basic human rights which they deserve after careful consideration of the merits of this case.

***The merits of the case and application of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights****

The case against the Republic of Sierra Leone was brought on the basis that the current government ban enacted into the law violates the human rights of the girls that are pregnant, or have been pregnant and given birth. The rationale behind the implementation of the law was to ensure that the ‘pregnant girls’ (children under the age of 18) who fell under the category of the ban on attendance enacted into law did not influence girls who had not been pregnant to follow suit. To determine whether the case brought by the applicant ‘WAVES’ has merit and whether a judgment in their favour would be just we must assess the language of international law on an individual’s human rights. Under Article 26 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (to which the Republic of Sierra Leone subscribes as a member of the United Nations) it duly states; ‘Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.’ On the application of this article to the government ban, it is evident that on the application of the UDHR the actions of the Government of Sierra Leone may be in violation of the right of children to which this ban may be applied to as it deprives them of their basic human right to education.

However, in fairness, we must consider the governments’ rationale behind the ban and social justifications for the institution of such this ban. As detailed above the Republic of Sierra Leone may contend that the reason for the ban is to protect the youthful innocence of girls that have not been pregnant from influence by their peers who have been or pregnant. The rationale should not be overlooked because as it is it represents a genuine fear held by many parents who initially supported the ban when it was first implemented. While one can appreciate the concern of parents that wish to protect the innocence of their children this comes at the expense of the deprivation of education to thousands of other children that are victims of challenging circumstances. Therefore in In the interest of development, this ban is not the answer to the fears of the government or parents. ‘Innocent children’ or ‘not previously pregnant girls’ can and indeed will be exposed to the realities of sexual reproduction from a young age by mere observation of social norms outside of the school environment, it is difficult to deny that these observations may not also ‘negatively influence’ children.

Based on the rationale behind the ban and those that support this disastrous ban should we then institute a ban on aunties, elder cousins, friends of their parents or even their own mother who may become pregnant or have had children from being part of a child’s life because their pregnancy may negatively influence an ‘innocent child’? This answer is simply no, as enforcement is unobtainable it is therefore irrational. Summarily this rationale behind the ban is not sufficiently compelling to overcome the deprivation of education to a ‘pregnant child’, particularly when we consider that education can be pivotal to one raising themselves out of poverty. In the absence of viable justifications for government ban if the ECOWAS Court of Justice was to declare that on the application of article 26 (1) UDHR 1948 the actions of the Republic of Sierra Leone has indeed violated the human rights of the children, by instituting this ban such a declaration by the court would be accurate, fair and just. In addition, any subsequent appeal of such a decision that affirms the decision of the court in the first proceeding would also be accurate fair and just.

***The Impact of the Scales of Justice***

Sierra Leone’s Sustainable Development Goals, Harmonised Results Framework, updated June 2019 (figures taken from the 2015 annual census and UN projected population figure for Sierra Leone) prioritises ‘ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education’ as SDG 4. According to this data the percentage of girls completing junior secondary school (girls between the ages of 12-15), was estimated at 41.90% by senior secondary school (ages 15-18) the percentage of girls who complete school is as low as 17.50%. If the matter is decided in favour of the defendant the Republic of Sierra Leone, the likelihood is that children affected by this ban will not receive the social justice and quality of education they deserve as the government may not feel the need to adjust or improve our school system so that it is truly inclusive to advance the education of every child including ‘pregnant girls’. The impact of the outcome of this case being heard in the ECOWAS Court of Justice will go far beyond Sierra Leone’s borders and that of the ECOWAS states. If the matter is decided in favour of the claimants ‘WAVES’ it will provide an African perspective on the question of whether neighbouring African countries that subscribe to the deprivation children of education that have been pregnant or are pregnant at the time of compulsory attendance through a ban may also be in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Equatorial Guinea children that become pregnant are automatically banned from continuing their education following legislation that was introduced in 2016, girls are required to take an arbitrary and invasive pregnancy test at the start of the term to determine whether they are pregnant and should be banned from continuing their education in accordance with national law. In Tanzania, the ban on pregnant girls attending school has been in place since 1961 much like Equitorial Guinnea the law was implemented as a result of social norms that encourage the expulsion of young children from school during and following pregnancy. As a result of this children affected by the ban are being caught in the middle of a cycle of educational deprivation. According to an article written by Samuel Obiang on ‘theirworld.org’ to avoid the arbitrary deprivation of education resulting from pregnancy a child may be forced to seek an abortion in inhumane conditions which may potentially put the girl’s life at risk.

****The third way: A separate education system for ‘pregnant girls’****

According to an article written by Samuel Obiang on ‘their world’ the parent of a child that had been banned from school in after becoming pregnant in Tanzania expressed that she believed that the government should provide dedicated schools ‘especially for young pregnant girls, so they can keep up with their studies’. Following international pressure on the ban and a resolution with the World Bank, the Tanzanian Government implemented dedicated adult learning centres made available to ‘pregnant girls’ that had been banned from school. This third way that neither integrates ‘pregnant girls’ into the standardized school education system nor limits their access to education may seem to be reasonable. However, under Article 7 of the UDHR, it duly states that ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.’ Arguably, the provisions of separate schools or ‘adult learning centres’ for pregnant girls even though well-intentioned as a reasonable alternative is in itself discriminatory. Despite it being sweetened with the idea that girls who are pregnant are given the privilege of continuing their education through a separate education system we must remember that the issue here is the oppressive ban from attendance at schools. Without this ban ‘pregnant girls’ children of compulsory school age would not be burdened with continuing their education through a separate education system that may not be fitting to thier educational needs. The ban ostracises pregnant girls from the same quality of standardized education as their peers. In addition, because this ban will not at any time be applicable to a ‘boy child’ they will not face the burden of attending an alternative education system after fathering a child. Consequently, any decision in favour of the defendant or complainant that requires separate adult learning centres for pregnant girls may in a later proceeding be interpreted to violate Article 7 of the UDHR.

****My humble opinion****

As I stated earlier for ethical reasons, I will not as part of this post disseminate my views with the intent to influence the outcome of the ongoing case of Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES) v The Republic of Sierra Leone, however, as promised I will give you my humble opinion on the matter. In my humble opinion as a society we owe a duty to nurture and protect our children, when a girl child has becomes pregnant as a result of forced child marriage, sexual violence, or as a result of their socio-economic circumstance, as a society we would have failed them once. Depriving education to girls that have become pregnant by imposing a ban on their attendance enumerates to society failing our most vulnerable ‘girl children’ twice. On the application of Article 26 (1), UDHR 1948 the policy of ‘separate child education centres potentially also violate Art.7 UDHR. Where state may feel it necessary to impose a ban, the resolution may instead be to do the exact opposite and instead be to repeal or not impose any ban on the attendance of pregnant children. Instead, to avoid violation of the Article 26(1) and 7 UDHR 1948 the alternative would be for the state to fund the provision of judgement-free counselling services at every state-funded schools for children that may have been victims of sexual violence or exposed to circumstances that may cause an unplanned pregnancy to occur; This provision should also apply to private schools so that no girl child is left behind. There should be an establishment of regulatory bodies to ensure these services are available, sufficiently funded and meet the needs of the children that depend on them will be necessary. I’m aware that the next question would be what is the cost of such an exercise? and should it apply to every country in Africa of the ECOWAS area respectively?

In my humble opinion, if a state or country feels it necessary to impose a ban for fear that child pregnancies may negatively influence ‘innocent children’ and establishment of adult learning centres is a viable alternative which they have demonstrated that they can afford. In that case, the more cost-effective alternative of compulsory counselling services at schools and counselling services regulators can be afforded in place of a ban or adult learning centre which currently can be interpreted to violate the human rights children under Article 7 and Article 26(1) UDHR. This would provide support not only for children that for various reasons have become pregnant but also children that they fear may be ‘negatively influenced’ and may need support to understand the circumstances around them. I appreciate that many may disagree with these alternative suggestions considering the conservative nature of ‘African society’ regardless of which African country one may originate from. However, the Sustainable Development Goals that each an every country voluntary subscribes to on educational attainment of both boys, girls and adults over the age of 18 cannot be achieved if we continue to fail to support each and every child (regardless of their circumstances) that make up the percentages of sustainable development goals. We can all appreciate that education is a tool that each child can be sufficiently equipped to raise themselves out of poverty as such should the decision from the ECOWAS Court of Justice be in favour of the complainant Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES) on the matter listed for a decision in 20th November 2019, then the decision will be accurate, fair and just but effectively this is a matter for the court to decide.

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