The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled last month against Sierra Leone’s ban on visibly pregnant young women from attending school. The ruling is legally binding on Sierra Leone as a member of ECOWAS, and while the regional body lacks the authority to enforce the ruling directly, it can institute sanctions against countries that ignore the court’s decisions. More promising is the boost the ruling will give to civil society groups in Sierra Leone and increased scrutiny of the government.
Amnesty International (AI) brought the case to the attention of ECOWAS in response to the ban’s implementation in 2015 under the former education minister. Most of the girls interviewed by AI were impregnated during the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, which saw a correlational spike in sexual violence and teenage pregnancy. The crisis facilitated exploitative and abusive relationships, made worse by the fact that many girls and young women in Sierra Leone lack access to sex education resources.
The landmark case will be a major test for Sierra Leone’s president Julius Maada Bio, elected in 2018 on a platform of change and progress. The new minister of education, David Sengeh, has also announced the creation of a task force to address sexual and reproductive health, focusing on girls.
The case focuses attention on the role of international aid donors and the need for them to pay closer attention to how their funds are used, and ensure that education is seen as a right and not a privilege to be taken away on a whim. It also reveals a need for the international community to recommit towards funding access to justice initiatives, which dropped by 40 percent over the past four years.