South Africa’s Constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex, gender or sexual orientation, and for this reason gender equality is a centrepiece of legislation and policy in all spheres. It applies to schools: the 1996 South African Schools Act stipulates a variety of measures to implement gender transformation. Among other things, the Act protects pregnant pupils, safeguarding them from exclusion.
The matter is not simple because there is no clear policy yet on when a pregnant pupil should leave school in order to have her child, though it seems that some schools ask pupils to leave when their pregnant state becomes noticeable. Maternity leave from school for pupils has been debated but not resolved.
Completing school is key
The major goal of school policy should be to help pregnant girls to complete their schooling; to make learning at school — both while they are pregnant and after they have given birth possible, productive and fulfilling; to create a school environment that is free of stigma; and to encourage fathers to participate in the work of parenting the infants and supporting the mothers.
In a recent study conducted in secondary schools in Cape Town, a team of researchers found that most schools have not been able to provide this support for pregnant girls or pupils who are parents. In some cases, individual teachers have taken it upon themselves to help affected pupils by making special arrangements with homework and generally being understanding and supportive of their predicament.
The most common response is to avoid the issue — although, on the upside, this at least includes not expelling pregnant pupils, which was common practice as recently as 20 years ago.
We should not ignore this advance: most schools do not elect to follow the path of “removing” pregnant girls from school as though they were carrying a contagious disease. Nevertheless, all schools with pregnant pupil will at some stage expect the pupil to leave school in order to give birth. Ideally, this should be done in consultation with the pupil and in her best educational interests.
Teachers don’t like it
Many teachers do not like having pregnant pupils or young parents in their classrooms. They make fun of them, pointing out that they are still children and too young to be engaging in adult activities such as sex. Some school principals and school governing bodies act unilaterally and ask pregnant pupils to leave long before they would like to.
But there is some good news. Most pupils — and the Cape Town/Durban study interviewed more than 1 000 — believed that pregnant girls should be encouraged to return to school and complete their schooling and that the fathers should participate in caring for the child.
In this study, we see that gender equality is still not a reality in schools and that teachers and some pupils are not in favour of it. We also see that the law does not and cannot produce a set of guidelines that will resolve the current dilemma of how long a pregnant pupil should be able to stay in school.
We see enormously promising movement in the attitudes of pupils, an understanding of sexuality and a tolerance of the predicament of pregnant pupils. But the ongoing challenge of pregnancy at schools should be to improve the work prospects and educational experiences of pupils who become mothers and encourage fathers and other family members to be involved.