GENDER FOCUS with EMELDA MWITWA
THE apparent rise in the number of schoolgirls getting pregnant has triggered second thoughts on the re-entry policy by some stakeholders. Concerns have been raised about how a lot of girls are now getting pregnant and some unfortunate ones dropping out of school completely.
According to the Minister of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education Michael Kaingu, 16,000 girls dropped out of school last year due to pregnancy and child marriage. And of these girls, about 13,250 were below the age of 18 or at primary education level.
Some people attribute the apparent rise in numbers of girls dropping out of school to the re-entry policy that allows pregnant schoolgirls to take maternity leave. Well, Iâ€™m not sure if there are more girls getting pregnant now, than during the time when pregnant girls were being expelled from school, as a matter of policy. A study needs to be done for us to know for sure that schoolgirls are abusing the re-entry policy.
Nevertheless, the argument is that the well-intended re-entry policy defeats the purpose for which it was meant to serve, as more girls are getting pregnant than before.
Some people, teachers inclusive, feel girls are abusing the very policy that was created to give them a second chance at education when they drop out due to pregnancy.
It is said that girls are taking advantage of the policy to misbehave, and also of the fact that there is no punishment from their schools when they get pregnant.
Therefore, there is this carefree sexual behaviour by young people who not only jeopardise their chances of completing school, but also expose themselves to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
So if these girls are taking advantage of the no-punishment rule to engage in casual sex, they are also making themselves vulnerable to STIs.
Perhaps, one thing the young people do not appreciate is that the pregnancy will not just bring the â€˜bundle of joyâ€™, or baby if you like, but STIs and perhaps life-long consequences.
Well, my line of thought is on concerns that the re-entry policy is promoting sexual immorality among schoolgirls.
Actually just recently, Kabwe Deputy Mayor McDonald Mwamba called for the abolishment of the re-entry policy, because in his view, it has failed to address challenges pertaining to girlsâ€™ education.
Mr Mwamba said Government needs to revisit the policy because it has contributed to the increasing number of school drop-outs and child marriages in Zambia.
He said schoolgirls have lost the true value for education due to the freedom to take maternity leave and return to school. However, his observation is that some of the girls end up in early marriages and do not even return to school.
There are many other people who feel that there are more girls getting pregnant now because of the maternity leave provided for in the re-entry policy.
I remember last year, concerns were raised that girls who are given a second chance to go back to school, tend to fall pregnant a second or third time.
Scanty figures from selected districts last year indicated that 70 percent of young mothers who are given a second chance at education tend to fall off.
And only last week, Deputy Minister of Education Sydney Mushanga admitted that the re-entry policy is being abused but said it will not be abolished because of the valuable opportunities it presents to erring schoolgirls.
Mr Mushanga felt it was better for all stakeholders to come together and find a solution to early pregnancies and child marriages.
Like Mr Mushanga, I do not feel the abolition of the re-entry policy is the right way to go under the circumstances. To start with, we are not quite sure if this policy is entirely responsible for the high prevalence of adolescent pregnancies and early marriages in Zambia.
For example, Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world and a lot of cultural factors have been cited for this negative trend.
Latest statistics indicate that about 42 percent of women in Zambia in the age group of 20 to 24, marry at the age of 18. And the trend is similar in other African countries such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
From what I know, schoolgirls are not entirely to blame for getting pregnant or marrying at a tender age.
Some are forced into these relationships by parents on account of cultural beliefs, while others are compelled by factors in their communities that make access to education not easily attainable.
Take for instance, girls who camp in informal boarding houses to attend school in rural communities that have no boarding facilities. These are usually abused by strangers in the villages where they camp and some end up with pregnancies, and in some cases, they get married to give the unborn baby a â€˜decentâ€™ family.
Then there is the problem of child defilement in our homes and communities which has equally dealt a blow on girlsâ€™ education.
Although there are instances where girls tend to abuse the re-entry policy, they are not fully responsible for the incidences of adolescent pregnancies and early marriages.
We all have a role to play in empowering girls and boys with education. Parents need to affirm girlsâ€™ education and discard the negative cultural practices that pull girls out of schools to become mothers and wives.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) that champion the advancement of girlsâ€™ education have a lot to do in terms of changing the behaviour of schoolgirls and boys with regards to their perception for the re-entry policy.
The scholars need not engage in casual sex on purpose because the school authorities cannot impose punitive measures.
The re-entry policy should be seen as a well thought-out plan meant to better the future of girls who, by mistake, end up pregnant. Schoolgirls should be aware of the challenges of combining educational and motherhood responsibilities.
In any case, itâ€™s not every pregnant girl who may be lucky enough to go back to school with the support of parents and guardians. Further, adolescents need to be wary of STIs and how casual sex could ruin their lives.
This is one campaign that will require rigorous efforts of not only CSOs, but school authorities and policy-makers too.
On the other hand, the policy-makers need to go an extra mile and make educational facilities easily accessible in all communities. Quite understood, in rural areas, it is difficult to take schools closer to the people because villages are usually sparsely located.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to build more boarding schools in rural areas so that girls do not have to stay in informal boarding houses where their activities are not monitored.
In a nutshell, the re-entry policy need not be abolished because it is a progressive law with the potential of reducing poverty in the long term.
All stakeholders just need to play their part in the campaign against adolescent pregnancies and child marriages. Imagine what would become of the young mothers and their children if they are not given a second chance at education.
GENDER FOCUS with EMELDA MWITWA