African girls are still punished for teen pregnancies

Adolescent pregnancy is one of the reasons most young women in Africa drop out of school.  It could be either because they are embarrassed by the situation and do not want to be ridiculed in class or that the school kicks them out in a bid to protect the school from ridicule.

A United Nations report indicates that Africa has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy.  According to a report by Humans Rights Watch released in June, these girls are usually banned from school, thus denied their right to education.

The most recent country to ban pregnant teenagers in school is Burundi, which released a memo last week. The memo declared that the teenage parents- both male and female- will be barred from the education system.

A few months back, the president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, said that pregnant girls should neither stay in school nor return after their children have been born. This directive has led to the arrest of pregnant teenagers across Tanzania.

Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone also have such restrictive policies.

The banning of girls from continuing their education due to pregnancy is a kneejerk reaction that ignores the root causes.

A revealing series of tweets by Dr. Njoki Ngumi indicated that there is a huge gap in sex education in terms of content. The conversation about sex and sexuality is marred with misinformation and myths, indicating that the teenagers are not receiving the right information about their sexual and reproductive health.

A 2015 Guttmacher Institute survey in Kenya indicated that the content of sex education is often conservative and focused on abstinence and in most cases, the children are taught that ‘sex is dangerous and immoral.’

The lack of information about intimacy and the emotional aspect that comes with sex and sex negotiation as well as power play in sexual relationships could be a vital factor in making teenagers more aware of how to navigate their sexual lives.

Addressing such issues is more important than banning girls from school.

Twenty-six countries in Africa have in place policies that allow pregnant girls to stay in school and to return once they have given birth. However, not all these policies are implemented.  In some cases, the students themselves do not know such policies exist and thus they end up losing out.

Other factors include financial problems, the lack of support and stigma in the community and schools.

The HRW recommends the following to government to ensure pregnant teenagers get back to school and continue with their education.

  • Removing primary and secondary school fees to ensure all students can access school equally, and targeting financial support for girls at risk of dropping out through girls’ education strategies, as in Rwanda;
  • Providing social and financial support for adolescent mothers, as in South Africa
  • Providing special accommodations for young mothers at school, for instance, time for breast-feeding or time off when babies are ill or to attend health clinics, as in Cape Verde and Senegal;
  • Providing girls with a choice of access to morning or evening shifts, as in Zambia;
  • Establishing nurseries or early childhood centers close to schools, as in Gabon;
  • Providing school-based counselling services for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, as in Malawi; and
  • Facilitating access to sexual and reproductive health services, including comprehensive sexuality education at school and in the community, as in Ivory Coast, and access to a range of contraceptive methods, and in South Africa, safe and legal abortion.

When these pregnant teenagers are able to continue with school or are able to return once they have given birth, they would be able to attain their education and improve their lives.

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