By Adi Radhakrishnan
Many African governments have made important progress to advance and protect girls’ right to education. But tens of thousands of adolescent girls across Africa still face barriers in schooling each year as they are pregnant or have become mothers. Because of the increases in teenage pregnancies in numerous countries throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the AU has an opportune moment to act and ensure that no girl is left behind.
Under international human rights law, African Union member states have the obligation to ensure that girls who become pregnant can continue and complete primary and secondary education, free from discrimination.
The African Union, under its directorate of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation, can play an important role in providing clear guidance to governments and to ensure the effective protection and implementation of girls’ right to education, including during pregnancy and motherhood. It should press governments to adopt laws and policies that are consistent with their human rights obligations – and to learn from good practices favored by many of its member states.
Over 30 African governments have adopted measures that protect adolescent girls’ right to stay in school during pregnancy and motherhood – many of them in recent years. In 2020, Sierra Leone ended a decade-long discriminatory ban against pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers and adopted a robust inclusive education policy that reaffirms the right to education.
Most of these countries have adopted positive policies that describe how they manage, and prevent, teenage pregnancies at the school level. This is key: without such clarity, school officials can make arbitrary decisions that decide what happens with a pregnant girl’s education, and even outright ban pregnant girls from school, without being held accountable.
However, not all policies respect rights equally. Over the years, Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive analysis and identified two groups of policies: “continuation” policies and “re-entry” policies.
A small, but growing, group of countries have “continuation” measures in place. These measures, which center girls’ autonomy in decision-making, allow pregnant students to choose to remain in school without a mandatory absence at any point during pregnancy or after birth. These policies typically encourage girls to stay in school for as long as they choose – and give students the option to stop studying temporarily to give birth, and to resume their education at a time that is right for them, free from complex processes for return.
Rights advocates often highlight such “continuation” policies, which focus on supporting students in their education and better reflect the full extent of a government’s human rights obligations. They ensure that young mothers have access to support designed to tackle new barriers and responsibilities they face when they become parents, including through counselling, early childhood services and allowing time for breastfeeding. For example, in Cape Verde, adolescent mothers have the right to take 60 days off from school as “maternity leave,” and in Gabon, a 2004 order established daycare facilities so that adolescent mothers can return to schools with childcare support.
At the same time, many other countries have “re-entry” policies – frameworks that specify that girls may return to school after giving birth, but present additional barriers. For example, in Uganda, regulations state that girls are required to go on mandatory maternity leave when they are three months’ pregnant. They are only allowed to resume schooling after one year, when their child is at least six months old, regardless of their personal situation.
Human Rights Watch has found that such policies, which require mandatory departure from school or present a series of strict or burdensome “re-entry” conditions, constitute a major barrier for girls. Long or compulsory periods of maternity leave, and complicated requirements for readmission, such as requiring a student to transfer to a different school or to present letters from various education and health officials, can negatively affect adolescent mothers. New mothers are already going through an enormous transition in their lives and are grappling with new responsibilities. They should be supported by their school community, not forced to withdraw and to complete unnecessary, and typically bureaucratic, tasks to return.
Good legal and policy frameworks are an important, and necessary, first step to protecting access to education. States should review their existing protections, recognize burdensome “re-entry” conditions, and replace them with “continuation policies” to ensure full compliance with international human rights obligations and to advance shared AU goals in eliminating gender disparities at all levels of education. Crucially, the policies should ensure that pregnant students and young mothers are allowed to stay in school for as long as they choose, are able to return to school free from complex processes, and can complete their education with adequate social and financial support.
However, good policies alone will not ensure that girls return to school and stay until they graduate. Governments should invest in implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of policies at the school level. A piecemeal approach to guaranteeing girl’s education means tens of thousands of students across Africa will be excluded from schooling.
The legal obligations are clear. African leaders should adopt measures to ensure that all girls have a right to continue their education, regardless of pregnancy or motherhood status.
Adi Radhakrishnan is a Leonard H. Sandler Fellow, Children’s Rights Division