HARARE, 25 August 2010 (IRIN) - Falling pregnant used to mean the end of school - and of much more - for girls in Zimbabwe, so a new regulation replacing immediate expulsion with maternity leave has been welcomed.
In 2008 Sarudzai Gopoza, now 19, dropped out of school after falling pregnant. "He refused to marry me. My father said he could not look after me, so I had to look for a job. Luckily he let me leave the child under the custody of my mother," she told IRIN.
A government regulation stipulating that pregnant girls automatically be expelled from school meant that Gopoza - who was about to write O-Level examinations, a school-leaving certificate that would have greatly enhanced her job-finding prospects - had to work as a domestic worker.
"My life is ruined - as a housemaid I am earning hardly enough to buy food and clothes for my child, and I don't see myself being able to further my education and get a better job in the future. I will consider myself lucky to get a husband who will also accept my child and look after both of us," she said.
It is perhaps too late for Gopoza, but a new regulation by the Ministry of Education, Sport, Art and Culture states that girls who share her predicament will now get three months' leave, after which they will resume their studies. A male student responsible for the pregnancy will go on paternity leave for the same period.
"I am happy that the government has seen it fit to allow school children to go on maternity and paternity leave in the event of a female student falling pregnant," said Petronella Nyamapfene, director of the Justice for Children Trust.
"The new regulation ensures fairness in the sense that, unlike in the past, when the girl child was punished while the boy remained in school, both students will now be treated equally."
The director of Girl Child Network (GCN), Nyasha Mazango, whose organization has helped sexually abused girls return to school, said the new policy would be empowering.
"We view the issue of a female student falling pregnant as either an indication of immaturity or vulnerability, and support the new policy because it gives the girl child a second chance. We are already looking at how we can cooperate with school authorities and communities to ensure a smooth return of the students who have fallen pregnant," Mazango told IRIN.
"Some school authorities are known to be adverse to the idea of taking back these unfortunate girls, but we hope that they will cooperate. Parents and guardians would have invested a lot of money in terms of school fees, uniforms and other educational costs, and allowing the children to continue will help avoid huge losses to them."
Girls returning to school after their maternity leave might encounter stigma. "From experience, students who are known by their peers to have been raped or sexually abused suffer a lot of stigmatization and usually perform badly at school," said Samuel Mbirimi, 48, a senior teacher at a secondary school in Chitungwiza, a town about 30km south of Harare.
"The situation could be worse where the girl is known to have become a teenage mother. In any case, she is distracted by her new role as a mother," he told IRIN.
Gordon Chavhunduka, a sociologist and former vice chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe, noted that "with this policy, the inequality between males and girls accessing education will be reduced".
However, he cautioned that the education ministry would have to "send a clear message that this policy is not giving school children the licence to make children at will, otherwise the education sector will be thrown into confusion".
The school curriculum should be expanded "to ensure that what the children learn includes great detail about pregnancy prevention, the dangers of premature pregnancies, and such other subjects like HIV and AIDS," Chavhunduka told IRIN.
GCN's Mazango suggested that the government provide free or subsidized day-care centres for students with children, but admitted that "This will be a tall order, considering the fact that the social welfare department is currently battling with paying the school fees of disadvantaged children."
Zimbabwe's ailing education system, once a model for sub-Saharan Africa, has buckled and all but collapsed under the economic and political crises of the past decade, when widespread food shortages, hyperinflation, cholera outbreaks, and an almost year-long strike by teachers in 2008 led to a dramatic decline in the standard of learning.
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