BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
ACCORDING to the United Nations, Africa has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world.
Annually, thousands of girls become pregnant and they face many social and financial barriers that hinder them from continuing with formal education.
Many drop out of school because the policies do not allow them to continue with their education. This was the scenario in Zimbabwe which the Education Bill seeks to address.
However, public hearings on the Education Amendment Bill, especially in Bulawayo, revoked mixed feelings. The Bill in part seeks to compel schools to accept pregnant pupils so that they proceed with their education.
This has not gone down well with some parents, and considering that Zimbabwe is a conservative country, many have become moralistic, much to the disdain of human rights defenders who are agitating for the girl child to be given fair opportunities.
“Parents are perceiving this as a promotion of bad behaviour, that is why they are raising those concerns. But the critical point that they could be missing is that what if it’s their child who falls pregnant. Would they want them to be chucked out of school for a mistake?” said child rights expert Caleb Mutandwa.
Mutandwa said if they perpetuated the practice of chasing away pregnant girls, it would create a generation of disadvantaged children.
“Because when you take away that girl from school, you would have robbed her of the only opportunity she had to create a better life, not only for hersel, but also for the unborn child,” he said.
However, some parents still maintain that keeping a pregnant girl in school would pose many challenges to other learners as well as for herself.
“What picture are we portraying when a heavily pregnant pupil is allowed to be in school with other children? It is like we are now normalising the practice. Chasing away pregnant females from school was a deterrent to bad behaviour,” said a vendor in Graniteside.
Others are more concerned with the supportive framework in schools, than the fact that they should be allowed to continue their education.
“There is nothing wrong with the fact that the girl should be allowed to carry on with her studies, but will the schools create a conducive environment for her as well as others?,” queried Mark Chirau from Dzivarasekwa.
Commenting on the issue, Mutandwa said there was, indeed, need for proper facilities for the pregnant pupil as well as her schoolmates.
“It is not just about getting the child back in school, but also providing appropriate support like counselling. There should be professional counsellors to help the children interact well with their pregnant colleague,” he said.
Mutandwa also said it was prudent that there be adequate facilities to cater for the pregnant girl’s health. Discussions on sexual reproductive health (SRH) matters are also of great importance.
“The issue of SRH in schools is important. That is why there were all those discussions on whether children should have access to contraceptives or not. But these always end up with people getting moralistic and missing the point,” he said.
Mutandwa said since the pregnant pupil was still a child, it was the duty of all stakeholders to ensure her protection.
“Some circumstances of the pregnancy may even involve some form of abuse or even rape, so we need to be supportive. We have been championing for the pregnant girl child to stay in school and so we need to support this,” he said.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education is currently holding public hearings on the Education Amendment Bill, which was published early this year.
The main purpose of the Bill is to align the Education Act with the Constitution. In terms of section 4 of the Act, children must be admitted into schools without discrimination on the grounds of their race, tribe, origin, political opinions, colour, creed or gender. Clause 3 of the Bill will add other prohibited grounds: Nationality, class, custom, culture, marital status, pregnancy, social status and legitimacy.
The Constitution also says the State must ensure that girls are afforded the same educational opportunities as boys.
A new section 68D, to be inserted in the Act through clause 15, will prohibit schools, public and private, from excluding pupils on the grounds of either non-payment of fees or pregnancy.
Meanwhile, legal think tank Veritas says the Bill is fraught with irregularities.
“While pregnant girls should be allowed to complete their education, no matter what school they attend, it seems extraordinary for the Bill to compel non-government schools, which rely on fees for their very existence, to continue providing education to pupils whose parents refuse to pay for their education,” it noted.
Veritas also said there was nothing in the Bill or in the Act which tackles the problem of social and cultural norms that discourage girls, particularly those in rural areas, from pursuing their education.
“It is not enough merely to prohibit gender discrimination in school admissions. The minister should be empowered to enact regulations that positively encourage girls to enter and stay in schools,” Veritas said.
Veritas also raised concerns over the lack of safety in schools.
“One looks in vain for any provisions on general security or for outlawing the use of school premises for political purposes, or preventing schoolchildren and teachers being dragooned into attending political rallies in order to provide entertainment there,” the report reads in part.