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'They touched our breasts and stomachs to see if we were pregnant'

Pregnant girls are shunned in Sierra Leone – and banned from exams.

They touched our breasts and stomachs to see if we were pregnant. Some girls were made to take urine tests. One of the teachers was wearing gloves when she was checking us. I felt really embarrassed when this happened to me. Many girls left as they were scared the teachers would find out they are pregnant. About 12 pregnant girls did not sit their exams.

THIS IS THE stark reality of school for some teenage girls in Sierra Leone today.

And if they are found to be pregnant during these informal and non-medical exams, they are shunned and excluded from all education.

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The country’s teenagers face two annual exams in November and Amnesty International is working to ensure that all pupils – boys and girls – get the opportunity to sit them.

A report published yesterday, confirmed that thousands of pregnant girls have been barred from taking the tests as the Ebola crisis has been blamed for a rise in adolescent pregnancies.

The study – Shamed and blamed: Pregnant girls’ rights at risk in Sierra Leone - reveals how the ban is sometimes enforced through “humiliating physical checks”.

The country’s Education Minister issued a statement last April to confirm rules around teenage pregnancies. It said that pregnant girls were prohibited from entering “school settings”.

The justification given for the policy was that it would protect “innocent girls” from negative influences.

Since 2 April “humiliating and degrading” treatment of girls in schools has become prevalent, according to Amnesty who interviewed 52 girls for the research.

Girls have been subjected to degrading physical searches and tests. Some have had their breasts and stomachs felt by teachers to ‘test’ for pregnancy. Others have been compelled by their school to take pregnancy tests,” the report reads.

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Eliane, 16 and pictured above holding her one-month-old son Eric, told Amnesty, “When I was pregnant I felt bad because my sister could take exams and go to school, while I had to stay home. Pregnant girls should go to school and be brave.”

Another teenager, Isa, added:

I came to Freetown when I found out I was pregnant. When I heard I was pregnant I did not feel good. The boy is 19 years old and from the same village. I came with my man to town, but now I am staying with my aunt. I am six months pregnant.
My dad died, so my uncle was paying for my school. The teachers did not allow me to go to school. My uncle took my bag and books and gave them to my sister. I feel ashamed but I would attend school now if I could go. And I will go back to school after giving birth.”

A 21-year-old woman, also from Freetown, recalled an incident from two years ago.

“I know one of my friends they checked who was pregnant,” she said.

“She denied she was pregnant. She came and told me first that she was pregnant and I did not tell anyone but the other people who knew went and told the teachers. They [the teachers] went and called the nurse.

“The nurse checked the girl, she touched her breasts, made her pass urine, made her take a pregnancy test to know if the girl was pregnant. When they found out she was pregnant they shouted at her and disgraced her. The girl was ashamed and she left school and she did not come back again.”

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Some of the stories recounted in the report involve girls as young as 12 and 13, like Christiana and Aminata.

I was 12 years old when I got pregnant,” says Christiana. “The boy is 19 years old. I met him when fetching water. He gave me money and helped me. I did not know what sex was. I have not learnt about sex in school. I did not use protection. When I found out I was pregnant I was shocked.

“My mum drove me from the house and I went to stay with my aunt. My mum told my aunt to drive me from the house and I went to the street until my uncle begged my mum to allow me back in the house. The baby is 9 months old. I am just at home looking after the child. I would tell the President to help me go back to school.”

“My mum does not give me money to go to school. My mum does not have any money. I ended up with a boy aged older than 17 years,” Aminata recounts.

I got pregnant and I had to have the baby. The boy’s mother used to swear at me, she said her son was not the father and that she hoped I would die in childbirth.

“We went to the police station with the baby. Now I live with my parents. I did not know how you got pregnant, so when I felt ill and one of my aunties who is a nurse told me I was shocked. For the first three months I stayed on at school, then I left, my fellow pupils started talking.”

Aminata and Christiana both say they would like to be lawyers some day.

Last month, money from donor countries including Ireland was used to set up classes for pregnant teenagers. However, it is not an ideal solution.

Amnesty says that while the government claims 3,000 people have signed up, the classes are haphazard and the ban on sitting exams still stands.

Sierra Leone Ebola Source: AP/Press Association Images

The increase in adolescent pregnancy came during the Ebola crisis last year when schools were closed.

“Many of these pregnancies resulted from rights violations including failure to protect girls from sexual violence,” Amnesty explained. “Quarantines and an already overstretched healthcare system, meant that girls were not able to access sexual and reproductive health support or advice to protect themselves from early and unwanted pregnancies.”

“Pregnant girls are being blamed and shamed in Sierra Leone. They are being denied key chances to move forward with their lives, and to ensure early pregnancy does not become the event that determines the rest of their lives,” added the organisation’s Irish direction Colm O’Gorman.

More: The faces of Ebola: The survivors, orphans and workers the disease left behind

Read: Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet could teach Ireland a thing or two

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