Nairobi — African Union Guidance, Policy Reforms Needed to Ensure Girls Continue Education
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.
A Human Rights Watch index
“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 In March 2022, Togo repealed a 1978 circular that banned pregnant students and adolescent mothers from schools. In 2019, Niger repealed a law that temporarily excluded girls who became pregnant and permanently expelled married students from school, and replaced it with a new policy that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 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 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.”
Please see below for detailed findings and more information on the types of laws and policies across the African Union.
Current Practices Across the African Union
The overwhelming majority of African Union (AU) countries have ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (the African child rights treaty) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol, or the African women’s rights treaty), obligating them to take special measures to ensure equal access to education for girls, raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, and take all appropriate measures to ensure that girls who become pregnant have the right to continue and complete their education.
Human Rights Watch has generated the first available comprehensive interactive index and analysis of measures and policies applied across the whole AU to protect or hinder access to education for pregnant or parenting girls. Human Rights Watch reviewed over 100 official laws and policies from African legislatures and ministries of education, health, women, and social affairs across all AU member countries to understand how African governments protect or hinder access to education for students who are pregnant or are adolescent mothers.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed and spoke with education experts, activists, and nongovernmental organizations to better understand how policies apply in practice and contacted government ministries and country diplomatic missions to seek official government input.
Most AU countries have adopted laws and policies that protect a girl’s right to stay in school during pregnancy and motherhood. Far more countries have positive frameworks that protect pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ education in a national law or policy than countries that lack policies or have discriminatory measures. As of 2022, at least 38 AU countries have measures in place that protect the right to education for pregnant students and adolescent mothers to various degrees.
Human Rights Watch has classified the range of existing state measures into five categories: “continuation” policies, “re-entry” policies, no policies that positively protect girls’ access to education, laws or practices that criminalize those who become pregnant outside of marriage, and school bans.
“Continuation” policies allow pregnant students to choose to remain in school without a mandatory absence at any point during pregnancy or after birth. They also give students the ability to stop studying temporarily for childbirth and associated physical and mental health needs, and the option to resume schooling after birth at a time that is right for them, free from intricate conditions for reinstatement. These policies better reflect the full extent of a government’s human rights obligations and emphasize girls’ autonomy in decision-making.
“Re-entry” policies protect a girl’s right to return to school, but present additional barriers for the students. These include long and mandatory periods of maternity leave and complicated conditions or requirements for readmission, such as requiring students to transfer to a different school or to present letters from various education and health officials. Human Rights Watch found that these requirements can negatively affect a new mother’s willingness and ability to catch up with their learning while they are going through an enormous transition in their lives.
A large number of countries still lack a positive policy framework. Pregnant girls and adolescent mothers may face the threat of criminal penalties, arbitrary school decisions, and social and community level barriers in continuing education.
In 10 countries, the absence of positive protections exposes students to irregular access to education at the school level, where school officials can decide what happens to a girl’s education, or where discriminatory attitudes and social barriers pressure girls to drop out altogether.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch found that four countries, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Togo, had discriminatory measures that banned pregnant or parenting students from continuing their education. By August 2022, all but Equatorial Guinea had revoked these bans. In 2020, Sierra Leone reversed its discriminatory policy by revoking a 10-year ban against pregnant students, and in March 2021 adopted a “Radical Inclusion” policy that reaffirms pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education.
In November 2021, Tanzania’s Ministry of Education adopted Circular No. 2 of 2021 on the reinstatement of students who dropped out of secondary education, which specifically states adolescent mothers’ right to return to public schools and includes instructions for schools to accommodate these students. In March 2022, Togo’s education minister repealed a 1978 circular that authorized a longstanding school ban against pregnant students. Togo and Tanzania have not adopted a policy that outlines measures to guarantee education for students who are pregnant or are mothers.
Countries with Positive Protections: Continuation Policies
Continuation and re-entry policies are not novel frameworks for African governments. Some countries have had decades-long frameworks that protect the right to education for pregnant students and adolescent mothers. These policies encourage and support the education and academic progress of these students, and prevent punishment or explicit exclusion from school because of pregnancy. Yet, even in those countries with a re-entry framework, pregnant girls are often unable to continue their education due to discriminatory attitudes from school officials, stigma associated with having children outside of wedlock, and a lack of gender-sensitive instruction from teachers.
Seychelles has had a policy since 2005 that provides clear and specific procedures to schools and parents to support students who become pregnant in completing their formal education. When a student of compulsory school age becomes pregnant, she is explicitly, “allowed to remain in the same school for the first six months of her pregnancy.” After six months, the student “may leave school to have her child” and may return to the same school after giving birth, providing girls the choice to take maternity leave rather than imposing a compulsory period of absence. However, the student must return within one year after giving birth.
The policy further mandates both school officials and family members to support her at school and after her return, and outlines the responsibilities for each involved party in ensuring the adolescent mother is able to succeed in school. Specific procedures further describe the circumstances in which they may be able to advance to the next grade, or may need to repeat classes, establishing clear expectations upon a return to school.
Seychelles has recognized the particular barriers adolescents face in accessing sexual and reproductive health services, including parental consent requirements. The government has also taken additional steps to provide sexual and reproductive health education, make abortion services and contraception available and accessible for adolescents, and ensure youth are able to access such health services outside of school hours.
The Seychellois government informed Human Rights Watch that the country was in the process of revising its 2005 policy. In reviewing the existing protections, the government should adopt policies that ensure compliance with its international obligations and ensure adolescent mothers are allowed to return to formal education free from complex or burdensome re-entry processes at any time after they give birth.
Positive Steps Taken by Countries Affected by Conflict and Fragility
During times of armed conflict, girls and women face increased gender inequality and gender-based discrimination, in part due to widespread sexual violence by members of national armed forces and non-state armed groups, and higher levels of poverty that exacerbate gender-based violence. Sexual violence survivors rarely return to school because of stigma and humiliation, and often lack access to accelerated learning programs or emergency education that responds to their needs. Those who do return often lack support to continue their education. Such contexts reinforce the necessity of strong positive protections and continuation policies for pregnant students and adolescent mothers that are sensitive to the needs of girls affected by conflict or displacement.
Some African countries affected by armed conflict, which in many cases have high rates of teenage pregnancy, have recently taken important steps to protect a girl’s right to stay in school and to support pregnant or parenting students.
Burkina Faso has had a law in place since 1974 that protects pregnant and parenting students from expulsion or exclusion from school and requires schools to allow them to re-enter after childbirth. In 2021, the Education Ministry published an official ministerial guide on prevention of “early sexuality” and pregnancy and child marriage management in schools, Guide d’orientation et de coordination des Actions de prévention de la sexualité précoce, de gestion des grossesses et mariages d’enfants en milieu scolaire (Orientation and Coordination Guide for Actions to Prevent Early Sexuality, and Manage Pregnancies and Child Marriages in Schools).
The guide affirms positive protections for pregnant students, and further outlines case management protocols, data collection standards, and referral pathways for physical and mental health services once school officials learn of a student pregnancy. However, the current framework in Burkina Faso does not specify the processes for re-enrollment, nor does it detail the type of financial, academic, or social support schools should provide to pregnant students or adolescent mothers in formal education settings.
Niger has consistently had the highest rates of early marriage and childbearing in Africa, and has had an active conflict since 2012. In 2012, one of the last years for which data is available, 48 percent of young women in Niger had given birth by age 18. Between 2015 and 2020, 76 percent of girls in Niger were married by age 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
In February 2019, the Nigerien government repealed a 1978 directive that temporarily excluded girls who became pregnant from school and completely excluded them upon marriage. In August 2019, the government introduced a new policy that provides robust protections for girls’ education. Article 8 of Joint Order No. 334 of August 22, 2019, affirmatively guarantees that a student may continue their studies in the event of pregnancy or marriage. Additionally, the order states that disciplinary measures will be taken against any school official who refuses to permit a student to continue their education after giving birth.
A student must return to school within 40 days after giving birth unless there are exceptional circumstances. The order also mandates the Education Ministry to adopt a circular defining the sanctions against school officials who refuse to allow a student mother back to school. The government should remove the temporal conditions for continuing education and provide specific guidance to schools on their obligations to enroll and support pregnant or parenting students.
In March 2022, the government of Guinea-Bissau submitted a draft child protection law that includes important protections for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers to access education and have the support to stay in school. Articles 67 and 68 of the draft law ensure that a pregnant student or adolescent mother cannot be prevented from continuing their education or be pressured to abandon schooling. The draft law also states that pregnant students, or students with a child, should be supported to access classes on a regular basis. Schools must ensure that any mother, at any level of education, is able to breastfeed their child until the child is six months old, in line with World Health Organization recommendations.
In May 2022, Guinea-Bissau’s president dissolved the National Assembly, halting these legislative efforts. In the absence of legal protections, Guinea-Bissau’s Education Ministry should implement policy guidelines to effectively adopt the same protections throughout its education system.
Central African Republic
The Central African Republic has recently taken steps to codify positive protections for education. Article 72 of the Child Protection Code of 2020 guarantees that a student who becomes pregnant will have the right to return to primary or secondary school.
Countries with Morality Laws and Criminalization of Sexual Relations that Impact Education
Human Rights Watch has found that governments in North Africa generally lack policies related to the management of teenage pregnancies in school. In the absence of applicable frameworks, pregnant or parenting girls may face criminal and community-level barriers to continuing their education.
Education and child protection experts said that due to the highly taboo nature of pregnancy outside marriage, authorities in North Africa almost never collect data and when they do, often have unreliable data about teenage pregnancy, and teenage pregnancy rates in schools relevant for policymaking. Such attitudes and unreliable data contribute to a cycle of inequality and invisibility, resulting in a lack of measures to adequately respond to the needs of girls who face pregnancy or motherhood.
Across North Africa, most countries impose “morality-based” punishments on girls and women for violations of the crime of zina, a legal term derived from interpretations of Islamic law to outlaw consensual sexual relations outside of marriage. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco have codified crimes of adultery, indecency, and nonmarital sex in ways that threaten adolescent girls. The violation of zina is tied to additional social taboos and perceptions that a pregnant girl or an unmarried mother brings dishonor to their family and community.
Article 307 of Mauritania’s penal code criminalizes consensual sexual relations between a man and a woman outside of marriage. Violations can be punished with 100 lashes and 1 year in prison if the accused is unmarried. Flogging sentences are postponed until after a woman gives birth. While the text of article 307 limits its application to “adult Muslims,” Human Rights Watch research in 2018 found that some prosecutors charge adolescent girls under article 307, including when they are pregnant.
Notably, any indication or visible sign of pregnancy may trigger an investigation for a violation of zina. For many girls and women, the threat of prosecution and the social stigma tied to a suspicion of violating zina is a punishment itself. The social taboo reinforced by criminal penalties often leads families to force girls to leave home or to pressure girls into marriage.
In this context, continuing education is almost impossible for girls with children. Even when countries have policies that promote girls’ education, including compulsory education laws, they contradict these policies by applying laws that criminalize sexual activity outside of marriage. As a result, zina offenses perpetuate discrimination on the basis of sex, as pregnancy may serve as sufficient “evidence” of an offense and further inhibits girls’ right to education.
In Mauritania, those who refuse to allow a girl under 18 to continue her education because of pregnancy are subject to a criminal fine. Yet the criminalization of sex outside of marriage presents a significant and contradictory barrier to pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in accessing education during pregnancy or after birth.
Countries in North Africa do not apply uniform criminal punishments for zina. In Algeria, the penal code does not criminalize consensual nonmarital sex per se, but the threat of prosecution under laws that target adultery present a barrier to adolescent youth. Likewise, Egypt does not criminalize nonmarital sex between unmarried persons, but it does criminalize adultery, “public indecency,” and “inciting debauchery,” which could deter girls from going to school in person if they are pregnant outside marriage.
While Tunisia does not criminalize consensual sex between unmarried people, it does criminalize adultery between married persons, public indecency, and sex work. While these charges have sometimes led to arrests of adult women in unmarried relationships, a Tunisian lawyer interviewed by Human Rights Watch said such charges do not appear to have been used to penalize girls who become pregnant outside of marriage as a barrier to accessing education.
Even if they are not charged with such crimes, though, pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are still not fully protected to stay in school. When a student becomes pregnant, educators and child protection officers often assume that the girl is a victim of sexual assault, a child protection expert said. And while no law or policy prohibits pregnant girls or mothers from attending school, girls often drop out because of social attitudes and are only permitted to return if they have both familial support and a medical certificate or letter from a social worker justifying their absence.
The teenage pregnancy rate in Tunisia is low compared to rates in other North African countries. Tunisia’s adolescent birth rate was 7 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 between 2004 and 2020, according to UNFPA data. The low rates may be partly attributed to the availability of services for adolescents to prevent or end pregnancy. Abortion is legal and free within the first trimester, but parental or guardian consent is necessary for girls under 18, and adolescents may face other barriers such as medicine shortages, healthcare workers’ refusal to provide treatment, and time limits.
However, the actual rate of teenage pregnancy, especially outside of marriage, may be higher than the reported data, said Samia Ben Messaoud, who leads Amal pour la Famille et l’Enfant (Amal for the Family and the Child), an organization that supports the rights of single mothers and their children. The number of girls seeking the group’s services has increased in recent years.
Countries with Policy Gaps that Lead to Exclusion
Human Rights Watch found that 15 African countries, including Somalia and Ethiopia, do not mandate the exclusion of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers but lack a positive re-entry or continuation policy. The lack of positive protections often leads to irregular enforcement of compulsory education at the school level, leaving school officials to decide whether pregnant girls can remain in school and allowing discriminatory attitudes and social barriers to push girls to drop out.
Without positive protections and investments in academic or social support, pregnant girls and adolescent mothers are effectively expelled. Many also face a lack of support at school, at home, or in the community for continuing education.
In Somalia, access to education is a challenge for many children due to poverty, long distances to schools, and armed conflict. There is a consistent gender gap in enrollment rates across primary and secondary school. According to recent federal government data, only 39 percent of secondary school students in government-controlled areas during the 2015 to 2016 academic year were girls. No data was available for those living in areas controlled by the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab.
Girls and women in Somalia bear an unequal brunt of hardships brought on by poverty, armed conflict, and cultural limitations on the role of girls and women in society. Parents are reluctant to send their daughters to distant schools due to a risk of abuse, poor sanitation facilities, and high school fees. Girls face additional barriers as a result of social norms favoring boys’ education, a paucity of female educators, and a low availability of reproductive health information and services in schools.
Although no law or policy excludes pregnant or parenting students, the combination of social costs and collective pressures push these students to drop out. Once they become mothers, girls often face a higher level of responsibility at home. Girls, who are treated like adults once they have children and are expected to take care of house chores, need help from their communities to look after their new baby. A gender equity expert who requested to remain anonymous said:
If a girl becomes pregnant outside of marriage, she may face additional pressures to drop out of school and get married. “It is better that [the girl] stays at home and gets married as soon as possible to protect her honor, her family’s honor, and avoid liability,” a gender expert said about the situation in Somalia.
In Ethiopia, no law or policy protects or impedes girls’ education during pregnancy. Pregnant students and mothers are, in principle, able to continue their studies. But it is rare for a pregnant or married student to return to formal education due to social norms, childcare obligations, and economic challenges. Unmarried pregnant girls face serious stigma from their peers at school and their community. Education experts said that married students have continued to go to school in some cases, but their return depends on the will of their husband and whether they can manage the direct and indirect costs of continuing schooling.
Instead, some students in Ethiopia are eligible for indirect education services, such as Integrated Functional Adult Literacy programs limited to foundational skills and vocational training that are generally available for “out of school” children. However, such programs are not sufficient to fulfill Ethiopia’s human rights obligations to provide secondary school for all children. All students should be entitled to study in formal secondary schools or choose a suitable equivalent that provides flexibility, and to receive full accreditation and certificates of secondary education upon completion.
In Egypt, married students who are pregnant or are mothers are reportedly able to continue their schooling through homeschooling. Egypt’s national policy on homeschooling, however, does not explicitly refer to students who are mothers. Homeschooling should be generally available to any student who opts for this option. Home-based education is not tailored to the academic needs of pregnant students or mothers. Yet married students, with parental support, are able to request textbooks for use at home and take annual exams.
But Human Rights Watch found that students who become pregnant outside of marriage do not generally receive the same support and encouragement to continue their education at home. And they risk grave consequences including violence, and in some cases even murder, by their male relatives.
In its 2017 report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the government of Congo (Brazzaville) stated that it guarantees re-entry for students after childbirth by citing laws that impose criminal penalties on men who impregnate women and girls under age 21. Yet applicable laws, such as the Child Protection Act of 2010, which imposes these criminal penalties, do little to prevent sexual violence or teenage pregnancies, or to protect continuation of education for pregnant students and adolescent mothers. Congo (Brazzaville) continues to face high rates of teenage pregnancy according to UNFPA data: 111 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.
The Congolese government should build on measures like its Girls’ Education Strategy of 2016, which outlines strategies to prevent and address teenage pregnancies including through access to free medical care, and a push for information, education, and communication campaigns to address gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and early pregnancy.
To All African Union Members
Ensure that students who are pregnant, mothers, or married are able to continue their education without impediment or burdensome procedures, and ensure that schools are free from stigma and discrimination.
For countries that have no policy on pregnant students and adolescent mothers, adopt a policy that fully meets the government’s human rights obligations and emphasizes girls’ autonomy in decision-making.
Ratify the Maputo Protocol, and implement articles 9, 10, 17, and 19, which emphasize girls’ autonomy in decision-making processes.
Update existing re-entry policies for parenting students to ensure they comply with international human rights standards that protect the right to primary and secondary education for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers; and monitor schools’ compliance with the policy.
In keeping with the AU Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment strategy, ensure that students who are mothers have access to adequate financial and social support to complete their education, including access to child care and social protection grants.
Focus on preventing teenage pregnancies by ensuring that:
all students have access to comprehensive sexuality education, in line with international standards; and
all children and young people have confidential access to adolescent-responsive and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services, including safe and legal abortion, modern forms of contraceptives, and information on sexual and reproductive health rights, without forced parental involvement.
Repeal provisions in the penal code making consensual sexual relations and other “morality” crimes a criminal offense.
Set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both men and women with no exceptions.
To the African Union
Develop a human rights-compliant “model continuation policy” and guidelines that set out frameworks that ensure access to education for pregnant students and adolescent mothers.
Urge all AU members to end pregnancy-based discrimination in schools and related abuses.
Encourage governments to:
adopt policies that permit pregnant students to remain in school for as long as they choose, and that don’t prescribe a rigid compulsory leave after giving birth; and
Invest in implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of existing policies at the school level.
To the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
Conduct a regional study on the status of education for pregnant, married, and parenting students.
Building on the 2018 joint general comment on ending child marriage, issue guidance focused on the legal obligations to provide equal education to girls and women, including those who are pregnant or are mothers, without discrimination.
Urge governments to repeal legislation and policies that discriminate against pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, including criminal laws that impose criminal charges for sex outside marriage.
Monitor governments’ compliance with implementation of policies to support education for pregnant and married girls, and adolescent mothers during governments’ reviews under the relevant human rights instruments.