Keeping pregnant girls in school in Sao Tome and Principe

The removal of the Disciplinary Act prohibiting pregnant girls from attending classes or school activities is an important step in the right direction, showing that Sao Tome and Principe is investing in girls and gender equality.

July 22, 2020 by Lucinda Ramos, GPE Secretariat
3 minutes read
Young people from Sao Tome and Principe
Young people from Sao Tome and Principe

On March 27 this year, Sao Tome and Principe took a big step to make its education system more equitable: following support and advocacy from GPE, the government overturned a Disciplinary Act prohibiting pregnant girls in the third month of pregnancy from attending classes or school activities.

The 2006 ministerial regulation mandated these girls to attend night school until the end of their pregnancy. The same sanction applied to male students involved in the pregnancies.

The removal of this act is an important step in the right direction, and for investing in girls and gender equality in the country.

Girls in Sao Tome face difficult odds

With a population of about 200,000, Sao Tome and Principe has a high adolescent fertility rate: 93 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 years (compared for example to 68 in South Africa or 61 in Sudan).

This means that 86% of adolescent girls are at risk of or are dropping out of school, which exacerbates existing poverty-driven inequalities in the country.

In the poorest districts of Lobata, Lembá, and Cantagalo for example, between 13% and 15% of adolescent girls are already married and have already given birth. There, 44% of women from the poorest households were married before turning 18, compared to only 16% of women from the wealthiest households (INE, 2012).

We know that the benefits of keeping girls in school and learning are many for the girls themselves, and also for their communities. Each additional year of schooling increases a woman’s earnings, which reduces poverty. Additionally, educating girls results in lower child and maternal mortality rates.

Despite these benefits, available evidence suggests that girls face numerous challenges in staying in school and continuing their studies. Adolescent mothers are more likely to die during childbirth and have children with lower birth weight that are more likely to be stunted due to lack of nutrition, and in turn, be at a disadvantage from the very early years of their life.

New GPE funding to support gender equality in Sao Tome

Now that the Disciplinary Act has been revoked, there is still more work to do to support the country in educating adolescent girls. The COVID-19 pandemic has reached the island, with 746 infections and 14 deaths due to the coronavirus as of July 20. Schools have been closed since March 20 and the country plans to reopen them on September 8.

As history has shown during the Ebola crisis, girls who are out of school for prolonged periods are at higher risk of early marriage, gender violence and pregnancy.

Using an accelerated process, GPE recently allocated a US$750,000 COVID-19 grant to the country to support, among other things, activities to encourage children to return to school, a gender violence awareness campaign and the distribution of hygiene kits for adolescent girls.

Another GPE grant of US$2.5 million was just approved for Sao Tome and Principe, to support the Girls’ Empowerment and Quality Education for All program, alongside funding from IDA. The program seeks to empower girls and tackle learning poverty among the most vulnerable groups.

It will address issues around provision of safe learning spaces, working with families and communities to empower girls and equip them with the life skills they need in order to take control over their life choices.

The funding will support activities that strive to make schools free of sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and child abuse in all its forms. The key objective is to foster behavioral changes in both boys and girls in the third cycle of basic education and secondary education.

Giving girls in Sao Tome more agency

The new policy will need to be disseminated to all schools and interventions for girls’ empowerment promoted. This includes shifting norms that limit girls and women, providing safer learning spaces for girls, and gender-responsive educational materials and teacher training.

As healthcare services are expected to be disrupted in the coming months, it will be particularly important to continue implementing the sexual and reproductive health curricula.

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