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A group of 5,000 girls who were expelled from schools in Sierra Leone for getting pregnant during the Ebola crisis have returned to the classroom, the education ministry said on Thursday.
All schools were closed from June 2014 to April 2015 in Sierra Leone as part of government efforts to curb the spread of the Ebola virus, which killed almost 4,000 people in the country.
But when they reopened in April 2015, girls were assessed using invasive methods to check if they were pregnant or had recently given birth.
Kadie, in her third year of secondary school in the south of the country, told AFP: "My breasts were lumped together to find out whether they contained milky substances before I was allowed to continue my tuition."
It pupils were found to be expecting or had become mothers, they were given the choice of attending temporary alternative classes funded by the British and Irish governments.
As a result many girls missed exams to gain entrance to higher secondary school, university or college.
Education Minister Brima Turay said the girls, some of whom were still in the primary system when they became pregnant, were readmitted in January after being banned from mainstream schooling for being a "negative influence" on others.
"They started during the school year in January but we were watching their performance before this disclosure and I am pleased to report that it has been outstanding and over our expectation," he told AFP.
The authorities said last year the girls were expelled "to avoid other girls from following the example of becoming pregnant while attending school", as it "would set a bad precedent which runs alien to the country's cultural values".
An outcry ensued, with the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone calling the exclusion of pregnant girls from mainstream educational institutions "discriminatory and stigmatisation".
Sallimatu, 13, who spoke to AFP by phone from Bo, Sierra Leone's second largest city, said she was happy to have returned to school, adding that the stigma attached to teenage pregnancy made her determined to work hard at her studies.
The government will contribute to some of the girls' school fees for two years along with some living costs, the ministry said, partnering with charities to keep class sizes down as the girls re-enter the system.
Some girls, however, will not be returning.
Janet who got pregnant in the capital of Freetown aged just 11, said she had given up on mainstream education.
"I am done with schooling. I fear going back to be harassed by friend and foe alike. I rather nurse my year-old baby and look to what life can do for me," she said.
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