by Onyema Afulukwe, Legal Adviser for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights
Earlier this month, news spread of a Louisiana charter school’s policy that would have allowed faculty to force any student suspected of being pregnant to take a pregnancy test—and, if the test came back positive, to force her to go on home study.
Forced pregnancy testing in schools is a gross violation of young women’s fundamental human rights. Through legal advocacy, I have been working to get it recognized as such and outlawed—in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, in my home country of Nigeria, and in other countries in the African region where it occurs. It is a shock to see a practice I’ve come to associate with schools in the developing world being replicated in the United States.
I have seen the consequences firsthand, and they are devastating. In secondary school, the older sister of a classmate, who was a year ahead of us, was found to be pregnant and expelled by school administrators. We eventually learned that she was the victim of a rape which occurred in her home, but she was too terrified to tell anyone what had happened. As is the case with many victims of this injustice, no other schools would accept her. Her hopes for a better future were doomed.
In Tanzania, where nearly 44 percent of girls have either given birth or are pregnant by the age of 19, school administrators across the country force schoolgirls to undergo demeaning pregnancy tests often just before completing primary school—around the age of 11—and with increasing, and random, frequency throughout secondary school. Some girls must strip to their underwear to reveal physical signs of pregnancy. Others are coerced into taking urine-based pregnancy tests. No one can refuse to be examined or tested.
The impact is staggering, long-lasting, and far-reaching. About 8,000 girls are expelled or drop out because of pregnancy in Tanzania every year. Too often families abandon their pregnant teen daughters, forcing them to live on the streets with their babies. Faced with the possibility of homelessness, some young women succumb to pressure from their families to seek financial support through early or arranged marriages. The impact of these violations to their rights to health, education, privacy, and freedom from discrimination ripples throughout young women’s lives. Many female leaders of human rights advocacy groups still remember, over twenty years later, how humiliating and disempowering it was to experience forced testing even though they did not turn out to be pregnant.
Government officials do next to nothing to improve the situation despite its epidemic proportions, nearly 60 percent of the country’s adolescents have sex before 18. And in a double standard that’s all too common in many places throughout the world, while young women are stigmatized and penalized for pregnancy, the men and boys involved are rarely identified and face few consequences for their role.
In the United States, the reaction to the news about the Louisiana charter school was swift. Under threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU, the school reversed course and amended its student pregnancy policy, which no longer includes the invasive forced pregnancy testing it initially announced. The revised policy now assures female students the opportunity to continue schooling on campus throughout pregnancy and the option for homeschooling. This is a just and appropriate result.
Nevertheless, the emergence of this idea in an American school should trouble anyone concerned with the protection of our fundamental constitutional and human rights. And it should serve as a reminder of the importance of guarding vigilantly against violations of these rights not just in the developing world, but also—sadly, it seems—in the U.S.