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We write in advance of the 74th pre-session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“the Committee”). We hope this submission will inform the Committee’s preparation of its list of issues to seek further clarity on Sierra Leone’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This submission focuses on the right to education, including the lack of free education, child marriage and adolescent pregnancy as barriers to realizing the right to education, and the protection of education from attack.

Right to Free and Compulsory Education (articles 2, 3, 10, and 13)

The provision of free and compulsory education

  1. The constitution of Sierra Leone provides that the government shall direct its educational policy towards achieving free compulsory basic education at primary and junior secondary school levels, and free senior secondary education “as and when practicable.”[1] In 2023, Sierra Leone restructured and reformed its Basic and Senior Secondary Education system, enshrining free pre-primary and free secondary education into national law,[2] thereby legally guaranteeing children 13 years of free schooling, including one year of compulsory pre-primary education.[3]
  2. In 2018, the government launched a Free Quality School Education Programme[4] to provide free admission and tuition from pre-primary through secondary, in all government and government-assisted schools, consequently reducing the number of children unable to enroll in school due to their parents’ inability to afford school fees. During the 2018-2021 period, enrollment increased by 58 percent, from 2 million to 3.1 million pupils.[5]
  3. However, the government’s program still requires parents/guardians “to take responsibility for some services for ancillary costs according to the ability to pay.” In 2021, Human Rights Watch and the nongovernmental organization Purposeful found that families still paid for some services not covered by the government, and some schools charged unofficial fees.[6] These costs increased as children progressed from primary to secondary school. Some students also reported paying for secondary school exams, including the Basic Education Examination Certificate and the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination, which is key in determining a student’s ability to continue studying.
  4. In 2021, Sierra Leone adopted its National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, which aims to remove “all infrastructural and systemic policy and practice impediments” to learning, with a particular focus on pregnant and parenting girls and children with disabilities, who are more likely to be out of school.[7]
  5. At the pre-primary level, the gross enrollment rate was just 25 percent in 2022, with a very low and insufficient number of available pre-primary schools, according to the annual school census conducted by the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education.[8] According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), net enrollment rates in 2021 stood at 97 percent at the primary level, 77 percent at the lower secondary level, and 63 percent at the upper secondary level.[9] Inequitable access persists, particularly along demographic (gender and disability), socioeconomic, and geographical lines.[10]
  6. Gender inequality persists in the education system. Data from 2017 indicates that more boys completed junior secondary school (boys 47 percent, girls 41 percent) and senior secondary school (boys 27 percent, girls 17 percent).[11] Further, girls are less likely to be enrolled in school at all or to transition from one level of school to another. According to a survey conducted by Purposeful for its State of Out-of-School Girls Report, published in 2021, 43 percent of over 2,000 girls interviewed had never been to school. Of those who had been to school, only 7 percent made it to senior secondary level, with 59 percent dropping out or being pushed out at one of the primary grades, and 35 percent leaving during junior secondary level.[12]
  7. Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to:
  • Congratulate Sierra Leone for enshrining in national law 13 years of free education, including one year of free and compulsory pre-primary education and free secondary education.
  • Ask the government what measures it has or it will put in place to implement the Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, including to increase net enrollment rates and inclusive education at the pre-primary and secondary levels, particularly for girls, children with disabilities, and children from the poorest households.
  • Encourage Sierra Leone to remove direct and indirect costs in schools, including exam fees, in both primary and secondary education, and to share good practices with other African governments.
  • In particular, ask the government what steps have been taken to increase the number of government pre-primary schools to accommodate and boost children's enrollment, particularly that of girls and children with disabilities.

Support for strengthening the explicit right to free education in international law

  1. In June 2023, Sierra Leone joined a joint statement,[13] co-led by Luxembourg and the Dominican Republic and delivered during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to education at the UN Human Rights Council. Joined by 71 other countries, the statement expressed support for “efforts to strengthen the right to education, including the explicit right to full free secondary and at least one year of free pre-primary education.”
  2. Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to:
  • Welcome Sierra Leone’s spirit of international cooperation in support of strengthening the right to education, including an explicit right to full free secondary education for all children and at least one year of free pre-primary education.

Adolescent pregnancy and child marriage

  1. The adolescent birth rate in Sierra Leone is 102 per 1,000 girls and women ages 15 to 19.[14] This is more than twice the world rate of 41 per 1,000.[15] According to the 2019 Demographic and Health Survey, adolescents with a secondary education are less likely to have started childbearing than those with lower levels of education.[16] And while the practice of child marriage has decreased over the past 25 years, in 2019, 30 percent of women ages 20 to 24 were first married before their 18th birthday[17]; almost 9 percent of girls were married before the age of 15.[18]
  2. On March 30, 2020, President Julius Maada Bio and then Education Minister David Moinina Sengeh announced the immediate end to the government’s school ban against pregnant and parenting girls, in place since 2010. Sierra Leone was among a handful of African countries that explicitly banned girls who became pregnant or have children from its schools as government policy.[19] In December 2019, in a case brought by a coalition of Sierra Leonean and international groups, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that the ban was discriminatory and ordered the Sierra Leone government to revoke it.[20] The court also found that alternative schools exclusively set up for pregnant students, a largely donor-funded government program, was also discriminatory.[21]
  3. In March 2021, Sierra Leone adopted a “Radical Inclusion” policy, cited previously, that reaffirms the right to education of adolescent girls who are pregnant or parenting.[22] The 2023 Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, also cited previously, references inclusive education and includes aspects of the Radical Inclusion Policy. Article 19 of the act states: “Pregnant girls, parent learners, children from the poorest homes, rural areas and underserved communities shall be allowed to access, stay in, complete school and enjoy all the facilities provided in the school,” and that there should be “no discrimination between pupils in the matter of their admission to and treatment in educational institutions throughout Sierra Leone.”[23]
  4. Under the Child Rights Act of 2007, the minimum legal age of marriage is 18 years.[24] But this is contradicted by the Customary Marriage and Divorce Act of 2009, which allows children to be married off with a parent’s or guardian’s consent.[25] The 2018-2022 National Strategy on the Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy and Ending Child Marriage mentions “the need for these two acts to be harmonised.”[26]
  5. In December 2021, Human Rights Watch and Purposeful conducted interviews with adolescent girls who were pregnant or parenting, as well as non-pregnant girls, ages 13 to 19, in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, including a girl as young as 13 who was already married and had a child.[27] We found persistent systemic barriers to accessing education, including financial barriers, stigma, bullying, discrimination based on pregnancy, and lack of access to information about their right to stay in school and not pay fees, and childcare. Numerous girls lacked financial support to pay for tuition fees and indirect costs. Some were sexually exploited by men, who either pressured or coerced them into having sex in exchange for food, clothing, or other material support.
  6. Although some students experience a supportive environment at school, some adolescent girls and women told Human Rights Watch and Purposeful that they continue to be subjected to harassment and abuse at school because they are pregnant or parenting. A 19-year-old adolescent woman, who was enrolled in secondary school in the Bombali district, said that she continued to attend school despite the harassment she experienced from her peers because she was parenting. She said, “I don’t feel good about being in school. I am only going for the end of term exams. People provoke me. My friends bully me. They say I should not be in school around them.”[28] Through their work with girls with similar experiences, Purposeful has found that the legacy of the school ban on visibly pregnant girls in school, and the associated stigma that remains, pushes girls out of school and deters them from returning.
  7. Moreover, girls often have limited access to accurate information and services about sexual and reproductive rights, including contraception. One 16-year-old girl said, “I was not using [contraception]. Before I got to hear about it, I was already pregnant.”[29]
  8. Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to ask the government of Sierra Leone:
  • What steps has the government taken to implement the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools? Specifically, what measures has the government taken to ensure sensitization among parents, teachers, school administration, and students on the provisions of the policy?
  • What special accommodations are provided for students who are parents at school, such as time for breast-feeding, flexibility when babies are ill, childcare, or flexibility in class schedules and exams?
  • What programs are in place to develop and/or expand access to nurseries or early childhood centers close to primary and secondary schools, especially in remote areas?
  • How is the government working to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the practice of child marriage? Please provide recent figures on the rates of child marriage, disaggregated by age, gender, and geographic location.
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure that child marriage is fully banned without exception, including steps to harmonize the Child Rights Act of 2007 with the Customary Marriage and Divorce Act of 2009?
  • What steps are being taken to tackle barriers that lead to low retention of female students in school, including school fees, indirect costs, and gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas?
  • What is the status of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) Curriculum: what steps has the government taken to finalize the CSE curriculum? What steps has the government taken to develop training resources for teachers and educational material for adolescents to enable the implementation of the curriculum?
  • What measures has the government taken to ensure access to adolescent responsive sexual and reproductive health services including available, accessible, acceptable, and quality contraception and maternal health services?
  1. Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to call on the government of Sierra Leone to:
  • Continue to prioritize girls’ access to education, focusing on those historically most marginalized and at risk of exclusion. In particular, address social, financial, and systemic barriers that inhibit adolescent girls or women who are parents from continuing their education, including by ensuring that facilities, materials, and services necessary for their enjoyment of the right to education are fully available and accessible.
  • Ensure the voices and lived experiences of girls and others directly affected by education and inclusion policies remain central in sensitization, implementation, learning, assessment, and evaluation.
  • Work closely with community leaders to build an environment of support and encouragement for girls to remain in or return to the classroom.
  • Streamline laws governing marriage to ensure that there is a clear, internationally recognized minimum marriage age of 18 for both boys and girls, without parental consent.
  • Continue to combat the practice of child marriage through national strategies, in collaboration with women’s and children’s rights groups, health professionals, and other service providers, and coordinate efforts among all relevant ministries.
  • Facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health services, including comprehensive sexuality education at school and in the community.

Protection of education from attack

  1. Sierra Leone endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration in June 2015,[30] contributing to global efforts to protect education and improve compliance with international law.
  2. The Safe Schools Declaration[31] is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. [32]
  3. Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to:
  • Congratulate Sierra Leone for endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.
  • Ask the government of Sierra Leone whether protections for schools from military use are included in any policies, rules, or trainings for Sierra Leone’s armed forces.
  • Recommend that the government incorporate the declaration’s standards in domestic policy, military operational frameworks, and legislation, and share any good practices with other countries in the African Union.

[1] Constitution of Sierra Leone, 1991, art. 9(2).

[2] Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, 2023.

[3] Ibid. On pre-primary education, see art. 22(2).

[4] Sierra Leone Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, “FQSE – Free Quality School Education” (webpage) [n.d.], (accessed November 24, 2023). See also Jo Becker, “Legal Right to Free Education Grows Globally,” Human Rights Watch dispatch, May 9, 2023,

[5] Jack Rossiter and Might Kojo Abreh, “Sierra Leone Has Made a Big Bet on Free Education for Poor Children—So Long as They Can Pass the Exams,” Center for Global Development, August 26, 2022, (accessed November 24, 2023).

[6] Human Rights Watch and Purposeful, “Education for all girls in Sierra Leone: Moving from Policy and Legislation to Practice,” May 2023,

[7] Sierra Leone Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools, March 2021, p. 1, available at (accessed December 7, 2023).

[8] Government of Sierra Leone, 2022 Annual Schools Census Report, April 2023, p. 35, available at (accessed December 2023).

[9] UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Net Enrollment rate by level of education, (accessed December 12, 2023).

[10] See, for example, Government of Sierra Leone, Irish Aid, and United Nations Children’s Fund, Out-Of-School Children Study: Sierra Leone, 2021, available at (accessed December 7, 2023).

[11] Ibid., p. 27.

[12] Purposeful, The State of Out-of-School Girls in Sierra Leone: Findings Across Six Districts (Freetown: Purposeful, 2021), (accessed December 13, 2023).

[13] “Joint Statement on children’s education,” 53rd Session of the Human Rights Council, June 2023, available at (accessed July 6, 2023).

[14] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “World Population Dashboard” (webpage), 2023, (accessed August 3, 2023).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats SL) and ICF, Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey 2019 (Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: Stats SL and ICF, 2020), p. 88, (accessed December 21, 2023)

[17] Ibid., p. 68.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Human Rights Watch, “Africa: Rights Progress for Pregnant Students,” September 29, 2021,

[20] Sabrina Mahtani, “Sierra Leone’s ban of pregnant school girls outlawed in landmark ruling,” African Arguments, January 27, 2020, (accessed November 24, 2023).

[21] “Victory For Pregnant Girls in Sierra Leone,” Equality Now, December 12, 2019,,by%20prohibiting%20pregnant%20school%20girls%20from%20accessing%20school (accessed November 24, 2023).

[22] David Moinina Sengeh, “Radical Inclusion in Education” [n.d.], United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), (accessed November 24, 2023).

[23] Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, 2023, art. 19(2) and (4).

[24] Child Rights Act 2007, art. 34.

[25] Customary Marriage and Divorce Act 2009, art. 2(2).

[26] National Strategy for the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancy and Child Marriage (2018-2022), p. 13, available at (accessed November 27, 2023).

[27] Human Rights Watch, “Education for all girls in Sierra Leone: Moving from Policy and Legislation to Practice.”

[28] Human Rights Watch interview with F., December 9, 2021.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview, Falaba district, December 7, 2021.

[30] Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements” (webpage), 2023, (accessed November 9, 2023).

[31] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, (accessed May 12, 2023).

[32] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, (accessed May 12, 2023).

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