Swaziland: Pregnant school girls no longer face expulsion
MBABANE, 21 June (IRIN) - High school girls who fall pregnant will no longer be expelled from their schools, the Swaziland Schools Headteachers Association resolved last week. The policy change overturns what has been standard practice since before independence, when Christian missionaries established schools in Swaziland.
"Expelling pregnant girls is inhumane, because in most cases they are impregnated by boys who are allowed to carry on with their education, while the girl stays home," Themba Shabangu, Secretary General of the headteachers' association, said in a statement.
"This is welcome news. Discrimination against pregnant girls has led to the disruption of many young lives," Florence Kunene, a counsellor with the Bosco Skills Centre in Manzini, told IRIN. Kunene's centre has a special school for pregnant girls and teenage mothers who drop out of school to take care of their babies.
"Once a girl leaves school it is often hard for her to resume her education. This extends the cycle of poverty for those girls, who tend to be poor to begin with. These girls also have the burden of raising children, usually with little family assistance. Without a high school degree, decent jobs are hard to get," said Kunene.
Swazi schools have always expelled pregnant girls on moral grounds, and in the belief that their pregnant condition disrupted other students.
"I had to drop out when my boyfriend made me pregnant, and I never went back to school. It was a Catholic school, where they were very strict," said Maggie Thwala, 35, who cleans houses for a living in Manzini, the commercial and industrial centre of Swaziland.
"There was an unfairness. The boy who made me pregnant went to a Catholic school for boys. He was not punished; he continued his education," Thwala said.
Swazi custom has also played a role in the expulsion of pregnant girls - traditionally, a Swazi woman's primary role has been to raise children.
"Education was seen as a luxury for girls, and not really necessary. Some men resented educated wives. Some educated women felt frustration and resentment at not being able to apply their knowledge. When a teenage girl fell pregnant, society thought it necessary that she assume her 'real' role as a mother to a Swazi child, and forget about education," Phineas Mamba, a secondary school teacher in Manzini, explained.
Swaziland is rethinking the value of education in a girl's life largely because of AIDS, which has cut into the Swazi workforce, creating a need for more skilled, educated workers and a rising awareness of gender equality in the country, Mamba noted.
However, not only those teenage girls who became infected with HIV through unprotected sex have had their education cut short - AIDS has also caused a loss of education to many other Swazi girls, Dr Derek Von Wissell, director of the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), told IRIN.
"When a father of a home takes to bed with AIDS, the mother has to find a job to support the family. It is the girl child who usually is pulled out of school to be the father's caregiver; the boy child continues his education. Usually when their education is interrupted, the girls never pick it up again; they are locked into poverty as a result," Von Wissell commented.
A programme aimed at girls who leave school because of family obligations or other reasons will be launched next year with NERCHA funding, he said. Special classes will be taught at community centers, along with the adult literacy courses that have been offered to Swazis since the 1960s.
The ministry of education has not commented on the head teachers' resolution, but the Minister of Education, Constance Simelane, has expressed her support for an end to the expulsion requirement for pregnant girls.
"Girls should be able to continue their education - it is their right. It is a right declared in the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, to which Swaziland is a signatory," Simelane said in a speech last month.
The minister supports a re-entry rule that allows girls to return to school after they have nursed their babies for some months. The head teachers' association also supports this option, Shabangu said.
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