Millions of pregnant and married adolescent girls across many African countries are being denied their education because of discriminatory policies and practices, Human Rights Watch said today, on the Day of the African Child. More than 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa, with 31 million of them out of secondary education, undermining their rights and limiting their opportunities.
Early marriage and teenage pregnancy are significant factors. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of girls marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage globally. The region also has the world’s highest prevalence of adolescent pregnancies. In 14 sub-Saharan countries, between 30 and 51 percent of girls give birth before they are 18. Cultural or religious beliefs often stigmatize unmarried, pregnant girls, with the result that many pregnant girls are forced into early marriages.
“The African continent has one of the world’s highest rates of adolescent pregnancy, but many governments insist on tackling this social and public health challenge by punishing girls and jeopardizing their future,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should focus on helping girls prevent unintended pregnancies and support their efforts to stay in school.”
Although most sub-Saharan African countries have made commitments to guarantee compulsory primary and lower-secondary education for all children, many exclude or expel pregnant girls and young mothers from school.
Tanzania and Sierra Leone are among the sub-Saharan African countries that have harmful policies and practices that discriminate against pregnant and married girls, Human Rights Watch research shows. In Tanzania, Human Rights Watch found that school officials conduct pregnancy tests and expel pregnant students. Nineteen-year-old Rita, from northern Tanzania, said she was expelled when she became pregnant at age 17. “Teachers found out I was pregnant,” she said. “I found out that no student is allowed to stay in school if they are pregnant … I didn’t have the information [sexual education] about pregnancies and what would happen.”
Some countries, including Cameroon, South Africa, and Zambia, have adopted “re-entry” policies so that adolescent mothers can return to school after giving birth. However, even if governments have these policies, school officials often fail to carry them out adequately or at all. Young mothers frequently lack support to re-enroll due to school fees and related costs, limited support from their families, stigma in school, and a lack of affordable childcare and related early childhood services.
Many adolescent girls become pregnant because they lack the information needed to make informed decisions about their sexuality, family planning, and their reproductive health, while others are coerced into sex and require protection and access to health services and support. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of women ages 15 to 24 who have HIV globally live in sub-Saharan Africa and across the continent, and girls aged 15 to 19 are five times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys.
Sexuality and reproduction are often not included in the national school curricula. In a handful of countries where they are included in HIV awareness or “life skills” programs or subjects, teachers are frequently unwilling to teach these subjects because of the sexual and reproductive health content, or due to constraints on teaching time and resources.
All African governments have made a commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guarantee gender equality and universal access to free primary and secondary education for all children by 2030. The African Union has recognized the importance of ending child marriage, understanding that it is a major impediment to regional development and prosperity, and of eliminating all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination.
African governments should guarantee that girls have equal access to free quality primary and secondary education and support to stay in school, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should reverse harmful policies and practices that stigmatize girls, including forced pregnancy testing and regulations that allow for the expulsion of pregnant or married girls. Governments should also adopt laws that clearly set 18 as the minimum marriage age for boys and girls.
They should also adopt clear guidelines that instruct schools to re-enroll young mothers, provide support services in schools, and ensure that young mothers have access to early childhood services. Governments should also ensure that all children have access to age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality, and reproductive education. Where possible, school-based services should be connected to youth-friendly health services to ensure that adolescents receive impartial, nonjudgmental information.
“Governments have the prime responsibility to ensure that girls access free primary and secondary education, without facing stigma and discrimination,” said Martínez. “All governments should scrap policies that exclude pregnant or married girls, and put in place special measures to ensure that all adolescent girls can go to school.”
In Malawi, roughly half of all girls marry before age 18. Between 2010 and 2013, 27,612 girls in primary and 4,053 girls in secondary schools dropped out due to marriage. During the same period, another 14,051 primary school girls and 5,597 secondary school girls dropped out because they were pregnant.
Girls told Human Rights Watch that marriage interrupted or ended their education, and with it their dreams to be doctors, teachers, or lawyers. Many said that they could not return to school after marriage because of lack of money to pay school fees, childcare, flexible school programs or adult classes, and the need to do household chores. Others said that their husbands or in-laws would not allow them to stay in school.
Kabwila N., 17, said she left school in standard eight at age 15 because of poverty. She said she could not go back to school because she felt ashamed about her pregnancy: “I would not want to go back to school because I started having sex with my boyfriend while at school. I am not fit to go back.”
In South Sudan, 52 percent of girls marry before their 18th birthday. According to UNESCO, over 1.3 million primary-school-age children are out of school, and the country has the world’s lowest secondary school enrollment rate, at four percent.
Mary K., of Yambio County, said: “My father refused me to go to school. He said it is a waste of money to educate a girl. He said marriage will bring me respect in the community. Now I have grown up and I know that this is not true. I cannot get work to support my children and I see girls who have some education can get jobs.”
Anyier D., 18, said that her uncles forced her to leave school at 14 in 2008 to marry an old man she did not know: “I would wish to return to school even if I have children. People think that I am happy but I am not because I don’t have an education. I don’t have something of my own and I am only cleaning offices. If I had gone to secondary school, I would get a good job.”
In Tanzania, fewer than a third of girls who complete primary schooling complete lower-secondary school, and over 15,000 girls drop out annually due to pregnancy. Human Rights Watch found that in some cases adolescent girls dropped out of lower-secondary school due to sexual exploitation and violence by teachers.
Joyce, 17, from Shinyanga, said: “There are teachers who engage in sexual affairs with students – I know many [girls] it has happened to … If a student refuses, she is punished … I feel bad … even if you report the matter it won’t be taken seriously. It makes us feel unsafe. Three girls dropped out because of teachers and sex in 2015.”