Pregnant teens and expectant fathers barred from school in Burundi

Campaigners warn that ban violates human rights and say it is unclear how schools will identify boys for exclusion

Campaigners have condemned a ban that will prevent pregnant teenage girls and young expectant fathers from attending formal schooling in Burundi, warning the country is violating its human rights obligations.

Burundi’s minister of education, Dr Janvière Ndirahisha, announced last week that pregnant teens and young mums, as well as the boys who made them pregnant, no longer had the right to be allowed into public or private schools. In a letter to the country’s provincial education directors, she added that such students could instead attend vocational or professional training.

According to the UN population fund (UNFPA), 7% of girls aged 15-19 in Burundi have at least one child.

The move has been called a “double punishment” for girls, and campaigners say it is unclear how schools will identify fathers for exclusion. “More often than not the boy will deny it,” said Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge, a human rights lawyer and programme officer for the organisation Equality Now. “Unless they have a way of proving it – I am sure they will not get into those details – this ban is definitely skewed towards violating the rights of girls accessing education.”

Burundi, which has endured years of conflict, has high rates of sexual and gender-based violence. Four in 10 survivors of violence are teenage girls aged 15 to 19.

Campaigners warn girls living in poverty are also at risk of having sex in exchange for basics such as clothes, sanitary products, school fees or food.

“This is a double punishment for girls,” added Nyamu-Mathenge. “The moment you deny girls a right to education, ultimately other rights will be abused – the right to sexual and reproductive health will be abused.”

Last month, Human Rights Watch warned that tens of thousands of girls across Africa are banned or discouraged from education because they are pregnant or married. Many African governments have introduced new laws to protect pregnant teenagers’ access to education, but these policies are not always implemented, the report said.

A small number of countries – including Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone and Tanzania – have expelled pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. In Tanzania, president John Magufuli was condemned by women’s rights groups last year after he stated, “As long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school.” The country’s secondary schools routinely carry out forced pregnancy testing. Guidelines for a new, alternative education system for young mothers have been developed, but Human Rights Watch said this option is expensive and does not equip students with the same skills or qualifications.

Sierra Leone’s ban, which was introduced in 2015 during the Ebola crisis, is now being challenged in a regional court. Equality Now, along with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and other partner organisations, is seeking to challenge the ban at the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice. If successful, this could serve as a precedent for other countries.


Rebecca Ratcliffe

The GuardianTramp

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