Realising the Rights of Pregnant Girls During and After COVID-19 School Closures
Realising the Rights of Pregnant Girls During and After COVID-19 School Closures
COVID-19 school closures have put girls at increased risk of unintended pregnancies. This in turn puts them at increased risk of dropping out or being excluded from school. Article 10(c) CEDAW obliges States Parties to eliminate the gender stereotypes that block girls’ education rights.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, since March 2020, schools around the world were forced to close. This put many children and young people at risk, but in some places it put adolescent girls at particular risk. The reason for this is that due to school closures, more schoolgirls have been exposed to unprotected and coerced sexual activity from men and boys within and outside their families, thus increasing the numbers of unwanted and unintended pregnancies. Girls then either pre-emptively dropout because of the harsh treatment they would receive from their schools if they were to return to education, or they are excluded due to policies and practices that prohibit continued education for girls who have become mothers or are pregnant.
Harmful gender stereotypes that discriminate against pregnant girls on the basis of their sex are at the heart of these violations of their rights. Realising their rights requires States Parties to fulfil their obligations under Article 10(c) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to eliminate gender stereotyping in the area of education.
Defining harmful gender stereotypes Human rights law scholars Rebecca Cook and Simone Cusack have provided a useful and widely accepted definition of gender stereotype. They define it as a generalised view or preconception of attributes or characteristics possessed by, or the roles that are or should be performed by, men and women. In their words:
a gender stereotype is at its core, a belief and that belief may cause its holder to make assumptions about members of the subject group, women and/or men.
Harmful gender stereotypes with regards to adolescent pregnant schoolgirls are those forms of stereotypes that are, first, discriminatory in nature—i.e., they deprive the girls of a benefit available to others and constitute unfair treatment. Second, their application, enforcement or perpetuation in law, policy or practice degrades or diminishes the girls’ dignity. Third, the law, policy or practice diminishes or marginalises the girls’ capacity to engage in male dominated academic and vocational fields.
Article 10(c) CEDAW The substantive provision that obliges States Parties to address the problem of gender stereotypes is Article 10(c) CEDAW. It provides that:
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education and in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:
(c) The elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education by encouraging coeducation and other types of education which will help to achieve this aim and, in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programmes and the adaptation of teaching methods
There is already consensus in the literature that education is a powerful tool that can, and should, be used to challenge and eliminate harmful gender stereotypes. Furthermore, the CEDAW Committee (the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the CEDAW) have used their Concluding Observations to emphasise the importance of education. The Committee encourages States Parties to adopt measures that ensure retention of girls in education despite the pregnancy and challenge stereotypical beliefs concerning the importance and value of education for girls.
Significantly, one of the measures that States Parties are obliged to take is providing appropriate Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). Relatedly, the CEDAW Committee has consistently emphasised that States Parties’ obligation to review curricula includes the requirement to include age-appropriate sexuality education in the curriculum. For example, in referring to education in the Concluding Observations on Tanzania, the Committee asked Tanzania to:
Introduce, without delay, an age-appropriate curriculum at both the primary and secondary levels on sexual and reproductive health and rights and responsible sexual behaviour and ensure that it is offered as an intact subject by teachers adequately trained to deliver it.
At paragragh 68 of its General Recommendation 36 on education, the Committee again urged States Parties to institute ‘mandatory, age-appropriate curricula, at all levels of education, on comprehensive sexuality education, including on sexual and reproductive health and rights, responsible sexual behaviour, prevention of early pregnancy and prevention of sexually transmitted infections’.
Why CSE is important A CSE curriculum and learning materials present a potentially powerful tool that can be used to challenge and address the discriminatory treatment and harmful gender stereotypes that deny adolescent pregnant schoolgirls’ rights to education.
The lack of CSE prior to COVID-19 school closures accounts for some of the reasons adolescent girls when coerced by men to engage in risky sexual activity, do so and end up with unintended pregnancy. The lack of CSE denies them the information that they require to make informed decisions about sexuality and reproduction, including by limiting their knowledge on how to prevent pregnancies.
As I have discussed elsewhere, harmful gender stereotypes underlie the exclusion of pregnant schoolgirls from education. Such harmful gender stereotypes include the idea that pregnant schoolgirls are weak and are therefore incapable of studying. They also include the stereotype that girls are, or ought to be, chaste. In this sense, their pregnancy is viewed as deviation from the prescription of chastity: thus, exclusion is a punishment for deviating from the societal expectation. Other harmful gender stereotypes include the idea that the girls will soon become mothers and caregivers to their unborn child and should therefore stay at home to care for the child after birth rather than remain in school.
These harmful gender stereotypes have been relied upon by schools, governments and education authorities when creating and maintaining laws and policies that exclude pregnant schoolgirls. A CSE when properly taught can help to eliminate these harmful gender stereotypes and ultimately keep girls in school.
Part of a meaningful and long-term solution to the impact of COVID-19 In summary, Article 10(c) CEDAW points to a revolutionary view of education that advocates for education, including comprehensive sex education, as a vehicle for transformation of society. It provides a framework for eliminating harmful gender stereotyping of adolescent schoolgirls. If States Parties are to achieve any meaningful and long-term solution to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent schoolgirls, then the framework for fulfilling States Parties obligations under Article 10(c) CEDAW cannot be overlooked.
Written by Gift Sotonye-Frank
Gift Sotonye-Frank is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, which is part of GC Europe. Her research focuses on girls’ rights to equality and non-discrimination in education. She is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK, and a member of the Socio-Legal Studies Association.
Cite as: Sotonye-Frank, Gift. "Realising the Rights of Pregnant Girls During and After COVID-19 School Closures", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 22 July 2021, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/realising-the-rights-of-pregnant-girls-during-and-after-covid-19-school-closures.html
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