CHIHOTA- Some schools are violating the law by turning away pregnant girls and adolescent mothers who want to continue with their education as Zimbabwe battles to contain teen pregnancies, it has emerged.
The Education Amendment Act of 2020 paved the way for the re-entry of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, but indications are that young girls face stigma when they try to return to school, especially in rural areas.
This follows an investigation by newzimbabwe.com in partnership with the Information for Development Trust, early this year that revealed that a high number of school girls in Mashonaland East’s Chihota area were being forced to drop out of school after falling pregnant.
Chihota, located about 80 kilometres from Harare in Marondera district, is a farming community where the majority of people survive on subsistence agriculture and provide seasonal labour at commercial farms around the area.
Young girls from poor families are said to be at the mercy of old men who lure them into early marriages where they are susceptible to abuse, which eventually forces them into single motherhood.
This publication tracked down one of the adolescent mothers, Chipo Moyo* (17) after the initial investigation showed that she was already a mother of two children after two failed marriages.
Moyo and other adolescent mothers from Chihota have been receiving support from Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a community-based organisation, and one of her ambitions is to return to school.
Her dream, however, is being shattered if schools close to her home are not giving her another chance.
Moleen Svisva, the Shamwari Yemwanasikana focal person in Chihota, said some of the school heads they approached claimed that Moyo’s background made it difficult to enrol her as she might “influence” other girls.
“She admits that she messed up by falling pregnant while still at school, but she is ready to correct that,” Svisva said.
“It is her wish to go back to school, but local schools won’t accept her because of her background.
“They said she is well-known in this area and will likely influence other learners.”
According to Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a well-wisher was ready to pay Moyo’s school fees.
“A well-wisher pledged to pay her school fees and buy uniforms, but unfortunately we failed to secure a place for her to study,” Svisva said.
“We have two secondary schools in our area, but they said there were no vacancies, so she is stuck.”
A report titled National Assessment on Adolescent Pregnancies in Zimbabwe released in June this year by the United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Population Fund and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation noted that 97 percent of girls did not return to school after falling pregnant despite the new policy.
“Although the policy has been widely disseminated, there have been limited investments in making communities and mainstream schools conducive to promote re-entry,” the report says.
“Pregnant and adolescent mothers face stigma from their peers, parents, community members and teachers.
“Parents also need to be continually educated on the advantages of giving adolescents a second chance and not to castigate them.”
The report said some of the weaknesses in the policy were that it focuses on the adolescent mother and does not make provision for the infant, which makes it difficult for adolescents to balance their caregiving responsibilities with attending school.
“The current education system has no formal provision for children less than three years of age, especially in rural communities where most of the pregnancies are happening; making it difficult for breastfeeding mothers to access school,” it added.
A large number of girls in Zimbabwe drop out of school due to pregnancies and do not return even after giving birth.
During the Covid-19 period between 2020 and 2021, a total of 5000 girls fell pregnant and 3000 of those pregnancies were recorded in March alone, statistics from Women Affairs, Community and Small to Medium Entreprise Development show.
The UNFPA says 350 000 girls aged between 10 and 19 fell pregnant between 2019 and 2022.
Activists say the high prevalence of pregnancies among school girls is also fueling child marriages as most girls see no other alternative than to get married after falling pregnant and giving birth.
Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Takavafira Zhou said many girls in Zimbabwe were in Moyo’s predicament as the school system was not conducive for adolescent mothers.
“Her case is not isolated. We have handled a lot of similar cases and this is prevalent in Zimbabwe,” Zhou told NewZimbabwe.com.
“We have assisted a lot of girls to be readmitted to neighbouring schools instead of their former schools because we think this will give a wrong impression to other girls.
“They might end up thinking that there is no problem with falling pregnant while in school and all become pregnant. Imagine teaching a classroom for pregnant girls.”
He said one of the solutions could be the setting of special schools to cater for adolescent mothers, but the idea was shot down by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, which said such a set-up would be discriminatory.
“The challenge we have is that we have a policy, but its implementation is not clear. “There is no clear-cut policy,” Zhou said.
“You will also find that most parents are not willing to pay fees for their children, who fall pregnant in school and would want the perpetrator to pay.
“It will be a challenge under circumstances where the father is also a minor or a student, so many of them end up being denied the right to education.”
Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education spokesperson Taungana Ndoro said schools that were refusing to enrol adolescent mothers were breaking the law.
“No schools are doing that in Zimbabwe. We have not received such reports,” Ndoro said.
“All that was fixed by the Education Amendment Act and it is her right to enrol with any school.
“Anyone who refuses to enrol her will be breaking the law and schools cannot do that willy-nilly. It is not within their power to do so.”
He said any parents facing similar challenges must take their cases to district education officers.
For a long time, public health advocates in Zimbabwe have been pushing the government to give adolescents access to reproductive health services and education to avoid more girls finding themselves in Chipo’s position.
*Name changed to protect victim
This story was commissioned by Information for Development Trust (IDT) and published by NewZimbabwe,com