Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES) v. The Republic of Sierra Leone
The Sierra Leonean non-profit, Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES), challenged a policy banning pregnant girls from mainstream education as a violation of their rights under the African Charter and several other regional and international human rights instruments. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled in favor of WAVES.
In 2014 and 2015, an outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone forced schools to close for nine months. One consequence of the closures was a significant spike in pregnancies among teenage girls (in some areas, rates went up 65%). As a result, the then-Minister of Education, Science and Technology publicly stated that pregnant girls would not be able to attend mainstream schools while they were pregnant in order to avoid adversely influencing their peers. This statement revived a policy banning pregnant girls from school, and the government established separate schools for them that only met three days per week and only taught four subjects. This ban also increased stigma against the pregnant girls that, when coupled with the financial strain on them and their families, prevented many of them from returning to school after giving birth.
WAVES challenged this rule as a violation of the schoolgirls’ rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention against Discrimination in Education; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Specifically, WAVES argued that the ban violated the girls’ right to education and their right to be free from discrimination, and that lifting the ban and taking measures to support pregnant schoolgirls in their education would produce better outcomes overall. WAVES sought relief in the forms of (1) a declaration that the ban was unlawful, discriminatory, against the best interests of the children, and a violation of their rights, (2) revocation of the ban, (3) implementation of programs that address teen pregnancy by educating the public on sexual and reproductive health, (4) implementation of programs aimed at reversing the stigma around pregnant girls, (5) implementation of strategies to allow teen mothers to remain in school, and (6) integration of sexual and reproductive health into mainstream school curricula.
After determining that it had jurisdiction, the Court turned to the issues of whether there was evidence of the ban being implemented by the State, whether the challenged ban was discriminatory, and if so, what relief was appropriate.
Sierra Leone argued that the media statement by the then-Minister did not qualify as an action of the State. However, the Court found that it was attributable to the State because the statement was made while he was acting in his official capacity, and the government thereafter did nothing to stop the ban from happening.
The Court also found that the statement violated human rights norms binding on Sierra Leone. Utilizing the definitions of discrimination in several of the international instruments mentioned above as applied to the facts of the case, the Court found that Sierra Leone’s ban on pregnant girls attending school was discriminatory because that there was no reasonable basis to single out the pregnant girls for differential treatment. The Court granted all the requested remedies, except for the programs addressing teen pregnancy.
Although Sierra Leone has officially overturned the ban, public support for the ban means that the stigma will likely continue. Sierra Leone is yet to implement the other orders in the judgment apart from the overturning of the ban.
- Amnesty International (amicus)
Even though this case concerns Sierra Leone, similar practices exist in some African States, and this case could be used by advocates and lawyers as inspiration to challenge them. For instance, lawyers have cited this case as persuasive authority in cases that are currently pending before other regional human rights tribunals in respect of a similar ban in Tanzania.
For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.