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Zimbabwe has finally amended the Education Act through section 68C to provide that no pupil shall be excluded from school on the basis of pregnancy (and of course my people were beyond outraged). Prior to this express provision, there was no government law, regulation or policy requiring the expulsion of pregnant students. Only a moralistic belief existed amongst teachers, parents, school administrators and the general community that expulsion was required by law.

Such practice is unfortunately very common in many African countries and is often paired with mandatory pregnancy tests and the criminalisation of sexual behaviour in teenagers. In counties where laws expressly prohibit the expulsion of pregnant girls, the students face discrimination and stigmatisation by their peers, teachers, parents and wider communities. Such stigmatisation often forces the young mothers to drop out of school.

The best interests of the child principle provides that in all matters pertaining to the child, the best interests of the child are of paramount importance and the rights of pregnant teenagers are far more important than any moralistic or cultural interests. Expelling pregnant students or failing to support them upon re-entry into the education system is an infringement of several human rights. Pregnant girls have the right to equality, equal treatment before the law and the right to be free from discrimination. The state or any person may not directly or indirectly discriminate against anyone on one or more grounds including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. This makes pregnant students a vulnerable and protected group. Everyone has the right to dignity and this encompasses the right to live a dignified life. Expulsion from school creates future problems for the young women as well as the county. It is a recipe for high unemployment rates. This robs the young women of the opportunity to have successful futures and there is no dignity in being stigmatised.  Parenting teenagers and young mothers entitled to the same training and education as other students- they have a right to education.

The preamble of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that they can dully assume their responsibilities in the society. Article 18 on the right to education places a duty on states to reduce dropout rates in schools.

One of the goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063 is to eliminate gender disparities at all levels of education. The introduction of sexual and reproductive health education in African schools is aimed at addressing the high rates of teenage pregnancies which affects girls’ education. Many African counties only pay lip service to these goals and continue to expel pregnant girls from schools.  One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure that no one is left behind. This is a promise to ensure inclusive and quality education for all. The African Youth Charter requires states to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and barriers in the education system which block pregnant girls from attending school.

Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also places a duty on states to ensure that educational institutions and programmes are accessible to everyone without discrimination. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) places a duty on African states to take measures to promote keeping girls in school. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child obligates states to take appropriate measures to ensure that children who fall pregnant continue with their education.

There seems to be no winning for pregnant girls in schools despite various international laws which mandate governments with the responsibility to ensure that pregnant girls are not denied their right to education and are reasonably accommodated to access such education. Pregnancy should not be the end of anyone’s education yet thousands of young African girls drop out of school for reasons relating to pregnancy. Some states have only partially complied with this mandate by enacting legislation preventing the exclusion of girls from school on the basis of pregnancy. The high dropout rate and the discrimination of teen mothers points to the fact that the legislation is not in line with its supporting policies.

The new Zimbabwean amendment is not supported by a national policy relating to learner pregnancies. This is the case in most African countries including South Africa. Legislation must be supported by adequate policies. It is good and well for governments to lay down laws that prevent schools from expelling pregnant students. However, these laws must be supported by policies and measures to realise, promote, protect and fulfill the rights of pregnant mothers. Implementation gaps must be eliminated to ensure that the aims of such legislation are accomplished.

To ensure that pregnant teenagers, stay in school and to facilitate re-entry, governments can take measures which include:

  • adjusting school activities to accommodate teenage mothers e.g. breast-feeding time, condoned absence to attend health clinics (Cape Verde and Senegal)
  • providing for the option of night schools (Zambia) or online learning and school tailored home schooling (COVID-19 taught us that online learning is feasible and practicable)
  • providing social grants for adolescent mothers (South Africa)
  • establishing nurseries in schools (Gabon)
  • providing adequate counselling services (Malawi)
  • facilitating education and access to sexual and reproductive health services (Ivory Coast and South Africa)
  • legalising safe abortions because children should be by choice and not by chance
  • structuring maternity leave to allow for continued learning and adopt positive re- entry policies after maternity leave
  • effectively eliminating all forms of discrimination and stigma and taking measures to ensure the prohibition of discrimination
  • improving data monitoring of implementation of school policies on pregnant students
  • providing skill enhancing financial support programs for pregnant students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g gardening projects)

Sources: UN Declaration of the Rights of the Children; Geneva Declaration of The Rights of the Child 1924; Universal Deceleration of human Rights; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Protection of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination; Head of Department, Department of Education, Free State Province v Welkom High School and Another, Head of Department, Department of Education, Free State Province v Harmony High School and Another 2014 (2) SA 228 (CC) (10 July 2013)

It was an uphill battle to get girls into school. States must do everything in their power to keep them there. We leave no girl behind.


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