Roselyne Sachiti Features, Health & Society Editor
On Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s Parliament heard the Second Reading of the Education Amendment Bill (H. B. 1, 2019).
A contentious but important issue, that of re-orienting pregnant girls into school was raised resulting in strong and mixed views from all sectors of society.
One group strongly felt pregnant girls have no place in school as they had “decided” to become mothers. Others thought they should not be allowed back to school as they were “bad apples that would corrupt others”.
Another school of thought took it from the human rights point of view. Access to education is a basic human right and no one should be left out or discriminated against.
In Parliament, Mpopoma Pelendaba MP Hon Charles Moyo concentrated on Clause 15, more specifically on Section 68 (d) (1), which says “no pupil shall be excluded from school for non-payment of fees or on the basis of pregnancy”.
“I do not have much problem on the first part that is no pupil shall be excluded from school for non-payment of fees. However, I have a problem with the second part, that is on the basis of pregnancy. Why Madam Speaker? Our schools must not be turned into maternity homes. There is no need for those who would have failed on their choice to look for a boyfriend to proceed with schoolwork. A rotten apple spoils the barrel. I want to say, it will not be good for other pupils as well and the Bill is very clear to say, no pupil. So, when a person is impregnated, she ceases to be a pupil or a student, she becomes a mother,” Moyo said.
Continued Hon Moyo: “Mind you, Madam Speaker, there are complications associated with a person on her first pregnancy. The issues like BP, stress, untimely or early labour pains. Surely, we must separate those who want to proceed with their school work and those who have chosen to be mothers. It must be a clear amendment to say those who would have chosen to have boyfriends, I will reiterate, must be separated from those who want to proceed with their school work because of the peer pressure. After all, if you happen to have that pregnancy maybe at Form 1, if you are not punished and proceeded with school work, it means when you are now at Form 3 or Form 4 level, you again repeat the same mistake.
“Surely, we must separate those who want to do their school work properly without any disturbances, without being close to the bad behaviour that will be exhibited by those who would have been impregnated by other people. I totally disagree. Those who chose to have boyfriends and those who chose to be mothers must be separated from pupils.”
His views are a clear mirror of how society deems girls who fall pregnant while still in school.
The picture society has about pregnant girls is that of mischievous teens who by choice happily engage in early sex and fall pregnant because they want to. Society believes such girls should be punished.
Hon Moyo’s diction promotes stereotypes on pregnant girls.
His choice of words that include his repeated use of “choice to look for a boyfriend”, “chosen to be mothers”, “rotten apple” is quite worrying especially coming from a policy maker who should be aware of the embarrassing statistics on child and forced marriages, rape, incest in Zimbabwe.
To him girls who become pregnant can easily become repeat offenders. In short, he sees someone who falls pregnant while still in school as a lost cause that should not be given another chance.
In this case, the appropriate punishment is barring them from school.
While it is a fact that some girls fall pregnant as a result of perceived mischief, many other teen pregnancies occur in child marriages.
According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2014, among women aged 15-49 years, about one in 20 (5 percent) were married before age 15 and among women aged 20-49 years, about three (32,8 percent) were married before age 18.
Other girls are forced by their families to drop out of school to become tokens of appeasing avenging spirits, entering into early marriages and falling pregnant as young as 15.
Other causes of adolescent pregnancies include sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, lack of information about sexuality and reproduction, and lack of access to family planning services and modern contraception.
Should such girls who face the injustices of life not be given an opportunity to go back to school and rebuild their lives?
To entirely blame the pregnant girls and wish to see them out of school is hypocritical of our society and wrong.
Our two-facedness as society has left the girl child exposed.
What choices do girls have to prevent pregnancy and complete their education, especially when placed under circumstances beyond their control?
How do the girls cope with a society that shuns against contraception use by adolescents to prevent pregnancy, yet the sad reality is this demographic is having sex?
The same society also frowns upon providing teens with condoms which also act as a contraception method and also protect them from HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIS).
In Zimbabwe, the unmet need for family planning for young people is 12,6 percent, according to UNFPA.
In the absence of all these interventions, the girl child is left between a rock and a hard place, resulting in many falling pregnant.
When the adolescent girls fall pregnant, the same society that blocked them from accessing sexual and reproductive health rights is quick to bar them from completing their education.
Education is a human right enshrined in Zimbabwe’s Constitution.
With the promulgation of the new Constitution in 2013, the right to education was cemented and strengthened by Section 75, which stipulates that: “Every citizen and permanent resident of Zimbabwe has a right to (a) a basic State-funded education, including adult basic education; and (b) further education, which the State, through reasonable legislative and other measures, must make progressively available and accessible.”
Thus, the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe brought about a new dimension by mandating the State to play a leading role in the provision of education in the country in line with international practice.
Zimbabwe’s school’s re-entry policy allows re-entry of pregnant girls into school after delivery. The regulation allows three months’ maternity leave for pregnant schoolgirls. However, the policy has not been effective due to varying reasons, one of them lack of political will.
The policy does not allow a girl to go back to the same school, thus the new learning institution might be farther from home.
What is also clear is that of all the obstacles to the achievement and exercise of human rights, including reproductive rights, few have proven to be as challenging to overcome as those based on gender.
The net result of these differences as laid out by the State of the World Population 2019 Report (Unfinished Business), has been a systematic disempowerment of women and girls, who find their autonomy and ability to freely make decisions for themselves limited across almost every aspect of their life.
“Inequitable gender norms limit the ability of women to freely make fundamental decisions about when, and with whom, to have sex, about the use of contraception or healthcare and about whether and when to seek higher education or employment. The struggle for rights and choice is indeed a huge one for adolescent girls,” the report states.
In 2017 the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that 16 million adolescents aged 15-19 give birth each year, mostly in low and middle-income countries. Approximately 95 percent of teenage pregnancies occur in low- and middle-income countries, like Zimbabwe, with 36,4 million women becoming mothers before 18.
Approximately one in 10 adolescent girls give birth every year between the age 15-19 years according to the Zimbabwe Demographic Health Survey (2015).
According to the 2016 National Adolescent Fertility Study, Zimbabwe adolescent pregnancy among adolescents aged 15 to 19 years was higher in rural areas (20 percent).
Across Africa, students are barred from school because they became pregnant or are mothers. According to the Human Rights Watch, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Equatorial Guinea explicitly ban pregnant girls from attending school. In November 2018, the World Bank withheld a US$300 million loan for secondary education in Tanzania, expressing concern over its exclusion of pregnant girls and teenage mothers.
Following discussions between the World Bank and President John Magufuli, the government committed to finding ways for the girls to return to school.
This month, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hear a case against Sierra Leone challenging the country’s discriminatory ban against pregnant girls. The ban has been in place since the Ebola outbreak in 2015, when teenage pregnancies surged because of widespread sexual violence against girls, Amnesty International reported.
Human Rights Watch also found that 27 African countries now have laws or policies that protect adolescent girls’ education during pregnancy and motherhood.
Among recent important steps to safeguard their education, in July 2018 Burundi overturned a hastily adopted ministerial decree that would have banned pregnant girls, and boys who got them pregnant, from school. In December, Mozambique revoked a discriminatory 2003 decree that forced pregnant girls to take classes at night school.
In February 2019, Zimbabwe introduced an amended Education Bill that protects pregnant girls from exclusion. This is the same Bill that has divided Parliament.
All children, including pregnant girls and young mothers, have a right to continue or resume education during humanitarian crises, or to participate in accelerated education programmes if they have been out of school for a long period.
Instead of excluding pregnant girls from school, barriers to services should be torn down so that reproductive health rights are enjoyed by all. There is need to find better ways of addressing this issue and sending pregnant girls home is certainly not one of them