School ban on pregnant teenagers sharply divides Equatorial Guinea

Friday October 21 2016

Early pregnancies are most common in poor families, where adults might even consider sending a daughter out as a sexual offering.

A pregnant lady. Early pregnancies are most common in poor families, where adults might even consider sending a daughter out as a sexual offering. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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“Pregnancy is neither a crime nor a mental illness,” says Imelda Bosuala, a 15-year-old who was turned away by her school in Equatorial Guinea.

When the school term began last month, the government had put in place a new rule — in order to enrol, teenage girls must take a pregnancy test.

And a positive test means no more education.

Speaking on state television, deputy education minister Maria-Jesus Nkara said the measure sought to encourage schoolgirls to protect themselves against pregnancies.

A month into the new term, it is still too early to tell how many have been affected by the ban in a country where teenage girls come under pressure to start a family.

World Bank figures show that in 2014, the birth rate among Equatorial Guinean adolescents aged 15-19 was 110 in 1,000.

The figure is substantially higher than the global average of 44 per 1,000, but lower than in other African nations such as Niger (204), Mali (175) and Angola (167).

Rights groups have criticised officials for violating the right to education, slamming the measure as another example of repression in this tiny oil-rich nation whose president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has ruled with an iron fist since seizing power in 1979.

But opinions within the country are sharply divided. “This is a good decision,” said 13-year-old Sabina in the playground of Bioko Norte High School in Malabo.

“Coming to class while you’re pregnant shows a lack of respect.”

Even Bosuala herself is in two minds. “Pregnancy is not a good example to set in the school environment,” she admits.

But French teacher Gerardo Ndong believes the decision is foolish.

And Trifonia Melibea, a sociologist and teacher at the National University of Equatorial Guinea, is also dismayed.

“These adolescents are being deprived of the right to education. That’s an insult,” she says.

She also warns that the measure could push teenagers into seeking abortions “in inhuman conditions”.

In the former Spanish colony of 800,000 people, pregnancies can be legally terminated only if there is a threat to the health of the mother and with the authorisation of the spouse or parents.

Efua, whose 14-year-old daughter is expecting a baby, believes the government should open a dedicated school, especially for pregnant girls.

Early pregnancies are most common in poor families, where adults might even consider sending a daughter out as a sexual offering.

“Some parents use their daughters as items of business, asking them to go out with rich men to help the family survive,” says 19-year-old Ana Rita.

Sociologist Martin Ela points to increasing pressures from consumerism since oil production began in the 1990s.

“A girl goes out with someone who can give her a smartphone because she wants to be on Facebook or WhatsApp,” Ela says, adding that teenage girls are particularly vulnerable to pressure.

“In Equatorial Guinea, if a girl reaches 18 without having a child, everybody starts saying she’s barren,” she says.

The high number of teen pregnancies can also be linked to the absence of legislative protection for minors against sexual harassment, meaning abusive men operate with impunity.

Sierra Leone introduced a similar ban on pregnant teens last year, prompting a sharp reaction from Amnesty International.

“Excluding pregnant girls from mainstream schools and banning them from sitting crucial examinations is discriminatory and will have devastating consequences,” the London-based rights group said in a study released in November 2015.

“Education is a right and not something for governments to arbitrarily take away as a punishment.”

The report said the prohibition, which was sometimes enforced through humiliating physical checks, was likely to affect an estimated 10,000 girls and risked destroying their future life opportunities.

The ban by authorities has yet to be lifted.