By Nomthunzi Mpofu
"Zonelwa mvu yinye” which has a similar meaning to the adage which goes “a bad apple spoils the barrel”, comes to many a parent's mind when asked if they believe pregnant girls should be allowed to continue in the formal school system.
The debate about pregnant girls being in school has for years been an issue for hot debate all over the world and lately more-so in Zimbabwe as the country debates the Education Amendment bill of 2019 that allows pregnant students to continue with their education in public schools.
While some applaud this move and believe that it has been long overdue, some residents in Bulawayo have strongly resisted the idea that pregnant girls should be allowed to continue with their schooling within the formal system.
Many reasons for and against this move have been brought forward by residents and parents alike. Some argue that the scholar would be a bad influence to other students while some argue that pregnancy does not mean the right to education should be infringed upon or totally taken away.
In the past pregnant girls were expelled from school, while in many cases if the father of the child was also a student he would be allowed to continue with his education which many see as unfair and a mistreatment of the girl-child for mistakes also done by a boy child. In such cases expulsion was often seen as a deterrent to bad behaviour by other students supposedly to protect them from the 'bad influence’ of the pregnant student.
Over the years with the rights of women and the girl child taking centre stage in the development and human rights sectors, this has been an issue top on the advocacy agenda. Many women activists have strongly advocated for the inclusion of pregnant students in school because they still have a right to education which in the case of a pregnant student is more likely to secure a sustainable future for both mother and child thus empowering women, one student at a time.
A group discussion with O and A'Level students from St Bernards High School in Pumula, Bulawayo to ascertain how students actually felt about the move revealed that they strongly agreed that fellow students should be allowed to continue with their studies even if they are pregnant. Watson Chikwariro an A'Level male student stated that he believed that pregnant girls should be allowed to continue with their studies because education is a right that one should not be deprived of because of a mistake such as falling pregnant.
Barring pregnant students from continuing with their education if they desire to do so is not just an infringement of their right to education, but also reeks of a hypocritical society.
A society that talks about empowering women and changing attitudes that have long reinforced patriarchy, yet when given an opportunity to walk the talk, it draws back and disappoints our girl children like has been the case so many times before.
There comes a time when we need to stop being all about talk and actually stand up and fight for the rights of our female children and do something that will not only secure their futures, but the future of generations of women to come.
A pregnant child going to school is one more educated teen mother, one more mother who has more opportunities for her that will open doors for her and no doubt for her unborn baby too. It is one less teen mother stricken by poverty, forced on to the streets, or one less woman and child forced into an unplanned union that may end up in domestic violence.
Another student from St Bernards stated that the move was good and would decrease deaths from illegal backyard abortions and suicides. This point is in fact a reality check for most parents.
We do not want to hear it or even admit it, but our children are sexually active, and should they get pregnant the only options they have are be publicly shamed and sent away from school, or find a way out which could mean abortion or suicide.
The fact is those are not choices we want any of our children to have to make because shame is not a permanent state, however death is. The truth is teenage pregnancies are increasing, according to a UN report, Southern Africa has the highest level of adolescent pregnancy in Africa.
With such statistics and the increase in deaths from backyard abortions and suicides linked to teenage pregnancies, why are we hell bent on shaming a pregnant student instead of building and upholding supportive structures that make it possible for such students to improve their lives?
Sphiwe a mother and mentor for young girls states that the decision to allow girls who are pregnant into schools is a two sided coin.
She argues that getting pregnant does not mean that one's education has to stop and it is vital that the pregnant scholar should have a support system that allows her to continue with her education.
However like most mothers, Spiwe is worried about the influence that pregnant student would bring to the school and the impact it would have on other students.
Besides the influence, other residents mentioned the distraction that comes when a student going through the early stages of her pregnancy and is going through bouts of nausea and at times being sick.
Of worry is also the welfare of the pregnant students and the unborn babies and whether they would be safe in a formal school system. If rules to protect these students are not put in place prior, then the emotional toll that may come from other children ridiculing and jeering them could also take a toll on their health.
Other questions that arise are, would the learning environment be conducive for pregnant students to perform to the best of their ability?
Some have suggested that maybe the Government could consider setting up a separate system where these scholars have their own facilities and do not mix with other students. While this could be an added expense to the government which parents must be given a responsibility to support, it also means the student would be able to work within a comfortable timeframe and pace that their state of health allows for.
While this debate has been going on, it is important to note that this is not new to the Education sector which has held the policy since 2016. Mrs Mlala a retired teacher mentioned that the policy had been active for a while and they did have one pregnant student who continued to attend classes until she wrote her final O'Level exams when she was still pregnant.
Another teacher Mrs JT Mpofu from St Bernards High School applauded the move and mentioned that as an educator she feels such a move is imperative to the development of the girl child.
We could go through the pros and cons of having pregnant students attend school all day long and while it is evident that the debate about pregnant girls going to school is far from over, perhaps instead of letting fear of the unknown keep us from making constructive decisions for future generations we could look at this as a means to an end.
The end game is for the teen-mother to get an opportunity for an education that will secure a future for themselves and their child. An end where the future is possibly brighter for a whole generation of babies born of teen-mothers and an end where we do something constructive for the girl-child and uphold their rights at all costs.