Many South Africans say pregnant teens should stay home from school lest they “disturb the class”, but activists are working hard to change attitudes. The right of pregnant schoolgirls to continue their schooling is often disputed in South Africa’s schools and communities, despite government policies that protect their access to education. In workshops conducted by Parliament’s Millennium project, in partnership with the Amazwi Abesifazane (Voices of Women) project, where women spoke about what democracy meant to them, many women said pregnant schoolgirls should be excluded from education. “Children who fall pregnant while they are at school will never realise that falling pregnant is wrong,” said Zanele Princess Majola from KwaZulu-Natal. “A pregnant child must stay at home until she gives birth because her presence at school is disturbing both the teachers and learners.”
The importance of education
The project aims to give marginalised women the opportunity to share, in their own languages, their personal experiences through stories and creative work. It recommended that communities should be made aware of the importance of education, its status as a right for all children, and that there should be a review of measures taken in schools to prevent teenage pregnancy. The Statistics SA General Household Survey 2010: Focus on Schooling report, which was made available on the national department of basic education’s website last month, found that more than 89 000 South African schoolgirls were already pregnant or fell pregnant between July 2009 and July 2010.
Past chairperson of Jabulani Technical High School’s school governing body, Boniwe Xulu, told the Mail & Guardian that the presence of pregnant pupils at school was “highly distracting to other pupils”. “I know that all children have a right to education but the right for pregnant pupils [to continue their schooling] hampers other pupils’ rights when they hear pregnant pupils moaning and screaming from pain.”
‘Pupils fall asleep when pregnant women are in class’
About four pupils at the school fell pregnant in the past year, he said.
A teacher should be concentrating on teaching, and not on someone who is in pain, he said. “A school should not be a social working environment.” He said there was a common cultural belief in communities that “pupils will feel like falling asleep if there is a pregnant girl in the class”, adding that he had, however, never experienced this himself.
The basic education department’s policy on pregnant pupils says when the pupil is nearing delivery she should leave the school so she can have access to a health facility, spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi told the M&G. Depending on the individual this could be anytime from six or seven months into the pregnancy. He was quick to add that the department “works hard” to ensure that a pregnant pupil does not lose access to schooling.
“We try to arrange that the pupil has access to schooling but also has access to adequate health facilities. At the same time, the department does not encourage or promote pupil pregnancy. “Through life orientation lessons we motivate pupils to wait until they are of an appropriate age to engage in sexual activity.”
Danger to pupils
Excluding pregnant pupils from education was dangerous for the pupils, said Marion Stevens, coordinator of Women in Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health Associates. “What we know is that if a young mother or sexually active schoolgirl is out of school for longer than six months they are at higher risk for a repeat pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease including HIV,” she said.
Discriminatory and prejudiced remarks towards pregnant schoolgirls’ continued schooling “need to be understood”, she said. “We need to go and work with those opposed to pregnant pupils in schools because it is unfair to exclude pregnant schoolgirls from school”. “The reality is that young girls do fall pregnant and we cannot deny them being with other school children in the place where they socialise, learn and grow up. This would be a contravention of our Constitution which guarantees gender equality.”
A step back
Twenty-year old Thokozile Ngwira told the M&G she was “shocked” when at the age of 18, and in grade 10, she found out she was pregnant.
She completed the first term of the school year at inner-city school Barnato High School in Johannesburg, but by the second term “my belly was too big for my uniform”. “I thought a lot about what people [classmates] were saying [about me],” she said. She also realised that she would be giving birth at the same time as exams were to be written. She dropped out of school “I was sad, I saw it as a step back.” She thought about never returning to school but then recalled the many relatives she had who regretted not completing their schooling. “I was determined to go back to school, so now here I am at the age of 20, back at school.”
‘Asked to leave’
The school’s counsellor, Caroline Green, said in 2011 six pupils at the school fell pregnant. Two pupils left the school voluntarily and four continued with their schooling.
She was aware that it was “quite common” in other schools for pupils to be asked to leave if they had fallen pregnant because schools were “concerned about how it would affect other learners”. But at Barnato pupils were encouraged to talk to someone at the school so they could receive the support they needed, she said, and practicalities such as the need for pupils to attend antenatal appointments, sometimes during school hours, were accommodated.
“Our school doesn’t discriminate against pregnant pupils,” she said. “We’ve even had a case where a matric pupil had her baby on the weekend and wrote an exam on the Monday. We don’t ask them to leave.”