By Cooper Inveen
FREETOWN (Reuters) - When Mariatu Sesay realized she was pregnant at 14, one thing scared her more than the social isolation she felt in the classroom: Sierra Leonean law banned her from attending school at all because she was expecting.
A keen student, Sesay continued to show up anyway and begged her teachers to let her stay, even as other children mocked her swelling belly.
Moved by Sesay's resolve, the school principal, Eric Conteh, defied the law, risking his career and becoming an unwitting figurehead in the fight against a rule that rights groups say is outdated and stigmatizes teenage pregnancy.
"They would call me names, laugh at me and try to tear at my uniform," Sesay told Reuters, holding her now nine-month-old baby girl, Nadia, in her arms.
"Whenever I showed up everyone would provoke me, but I love education so I summed up the courage to keep going."
Sesay, with her parents' consent, agreed to be identified for this story in order to draw attention to the law.
The school, whose name Reuters is withholding at principal Conteh's request, is the only one in Sierra Leone known to be allowing a pregnant girl to continue to attend classes, but pressure against the law is mounting.
Women's rights group Equality Now filed a challenge to Sierra Leone's ban last year before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court in Nigeria.
The court heard arguments last month and is expected to rule in November.
The government says allowing pregnant girls to attend regular schools would tire them out, expose them to ridicule and encourage others to get pregnant. It has created part-time centers where they can study.
Since taking office last year, President Julius Maada Bio has expanded primary school access. His wife, Fatima Jabbie-Bio, is an advocate for new legal protections against sexual violence. But they have not moved to lift the ban on pregnant students.
The education ministry did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
Conteh said a regional education official visited the school when Sesay was late in her pregnancy but was so impressed by her success that he chose not to report her.
"There is no reason that a child should be denied her basic human rights just because she's pregnant," said Conteh. "Any pregnant girl who wants to learn is welcome at our school."
Conteh could in theory be fired from his job by the education authorities for allowing a pregnant girl to continue studying.
THERE TO LEARN
Africa has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world and 18 African countries require pregnant girls to drop out of school.
The ban in Sierra Leone was adopted in 2015 when teenage pregnancies rose amid the chaos of a massive Ebola outbreak, in part due to a surge in rapes.
But it can derail girls' lives. One 14-year-old in the capital Freetown, who was kicked out of school and her parents' home last September after becoming pregnant, said she hopes ECOWAS will overturn the ban and allow her to study to become a journalist.
"Just because someone gets pregnant, it doesn't mean their life is over," said the girl, whose name Reuters is withholding to protect her privacy.
Sesay herself was persuaded into having sex for the first time with an older man, a motorcycle taxi driver, and two months later realized she was pregnant.
"If you're in school, you're there to learn. If you're not, you're just going to get married or get pregnant again," she said.
(Editing by Aaron Ross, Edward McAllister and Susan Fenton)