Girls in nearly a third of African countries face significant barriers to education when they become pregnant. But this is changing. In 2019, Niger passed a law directing schools to allow pregnant girls to continue their studies and return after they have their babies. Mariama Mamadou is program director of Femmes, Actions et Dévelopement (ONG FAD) Niger. She spoke with Human Rights Watch researcher Kaem Kapalata Machozi about this law’s potential to change lives, and what other African countries can learn from Niger.
What normally happens when a girl becomes pregnant while she is a student in Niger?
Girls who continue with their education unencumbered after pregnancy are outliers. Our society frowns upon girls who become pregnant. When the pregnancy is apparent, she is forced to reveal the father of her child. The girl’s family then approaches the man and demands that he assumes financial responsibility for the girl and pregnancy. This usually leads to a forced marriage, with no regard for the girl’s rights, wishes, or future. Sometimes the pregnancy is due to rape, but still, society encourages the man to marry the girl. This compounded trauma leaves a lasting effect on girls, most of whom are denied access to their education after pregnancy.
On the other hand, girls who refuse to reveal who they are pregnant with are shunned by their families. Their families punish them by ignoring them or speaking harshly towards them. Some girls go to live with their aunts or other women in their families. But in some unfortunate cases, the girls are put out on the streets and have to beg to sustain themselves, leaving them vulnerable with little to no access to basic necessities.
Niger passed a law to ensure that all girls stay in school. How did this law come to pass?
For years, organizations like ONG FAD pushed the government to legally protect girls’ right to education. This movement was persistent and finally, in 2017, the government issued a decree to keep pregnant teens and adolescent mothers in school. But the decree was not passed as a law in Niger until 2019. We are proud to say that we live in a country which legally protects education.
This law is a win for girls’ education. Why aren’t more pregnant teens and adolescent mothers staying in school?
The law is only the first step in this struggle. The government needed to go a step further to educate people around the country about the existence of this law. They did not do this. It was left to a few organizations like ours to publicize the law, but organizations and activists do not have enough funding or resources to reach all communities around the country. Girls’ rights can only be fully protected if the whole society is aware of the government’s new outlook. At the moment, only a small section of the society is aware of the law.
How has the law affected communities who are aware about it?
Among the communities we work with, pregnant teens and adolescent mothers want to go to school. But cultural issues affect how communities respond to the call for access to girls’ education. Child marriage is a problem in Niger. Many have interpreted the law as a rubber stamp for married pregnant teens to return to school. On the other hand, unmarried teens are still shunned by schools and their families. Clear messaging and advocacy from the government is key to changing these attitudes.
Schools must also make special considerations for pregnant teens. They need to welcome pregnant girls and encourage them to stay in school. School administrations should have counselling programs that support girls and do away with stigma in the school community.
Through these steps, families would also be encouraged to become more accepting to pregnant girls.
Niger took a positive step by enacting this law. What can other African countries do to emulate this legislation?
Niger is not a rich country. But the law was passed because the government prioritized girls’ education. Protecting girls’ schooling is not just the prerogative of rich countries, but all African countries should also center girls’ development through education.
This law came about because of activists’ and nongovernmental organizations’ tireless advocacy for pregnant teens and adolescent mothers. I encourage more Africans to push their governments to demand these protections from leaders. I understand how difficult it is to make a government change its priorities. But human rights belong to all of us, and we should not give up as we push our leaders to protect important rights such as the right to education.