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Girls` re-entry policy can support education for all

5th March 2012
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Young mothers at a medical facility in Tanzania

There are various barriers facing female students which hinder their progress in education such as distance from school, poor sanitation, poverty, and pregnancy. In many countries girls who became pregnant were expelled from school and were not re-admitted into the school system.

According to the report issues by World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2009, many teenage girls face serious problems, with about 16 million of them becoming mothers every year. Teenage mothers account for more than 30 births per minute. This is despite the significant drop in teenage pregnancies in most countries in the past 20 to 30 years…

The report, 'Down the Drain: Counting the Costs of Teenage Pregnancy and School Dropout in Kenya', shows that while only 35 percent of girls between the ages of 16 and 20 are in school, 50 percent of boys the same age attend. Yet enrolment of boys and girls in lower primary is almost equal.

The report says pregnancy, along with early marriage, poverty and preferential treatment for boys, is a major factor in the higher dropout rate for girls.

Another report by the Centre for the Study of Adolescence, titled 'The Situation of Young People in Kenya', and released jointly with Save the Children Sweden on May 13, found that by age 19, 48 percent of young women in Kenya have had a first child.

It was recently reported in the media that in Tanzania, studies conducted by various organisations, including HakiElimu, in the past five years show that an average of 3,600 schoolgirls dropped out of schools annually due to pregnancies. In the last five years a total of 18,000 students were affected by this problem.

It is sad that many of these students will not be able to realize their dreams. It was also reported that in Nachingwea, between 39 percent and 42 percent of STD VII students do not complete their primary education; while in Songea, by 2008 a total of 128 secondary school students became pregnant, and in 2009 a total of 73 students became pregnant and had to drop from school. The same trend can be observed across the country, taking into consideration there a number of unreported cases.

While many countries now recognize the importance of giving adolescent mothers a second chance to continue with their education and pave a future for themselves, only a handful have re-entry policies in place. And among those who have, many have failed to systematically monitor the impact of the policy.

There are a number of causes of teen pregnancies including lack of life skills or reproductive health education; poverty; lack of dormitories school; schools are very distant; some girls are raped or coerced into sex; peer pressure; traditions which encourage early marriages mainly parents forcing girls to get married in order to obtain wealth through dowry; and Lack of parental guidance.

Teen pregnancy is very dangerous. Dr. Viviana Mangiaterra from WHO’s Department of Making Pregnancy Safer analysed the risks to the health of pregnant teenagers and their babies. Teenage pregnancy is definitely dangerous for a combination of factors.

There are biological factors, the body is not ready, it is a growing body. But social-economical aspects are extremely important as well as the lack of access to services. Children that are born from a teenager mother have 50 percent higher risk to die than newborns that are born from older mothers.

Some other dangers including being expelled from school; social stigma and discrimination; increasing poverty vicious cycle as they are forced to abandon school and take care of the child; as well as giving up one’s dream. Some girls had dreams to become lawyers, doctors, politicians and so on.

Teen mothers can be supported through the following means:

(a) Provision of Life Skills education: We need to offer adolescents, boys and girls, different options and one important option is dual protection, so they get protected against pregnancy but also get protected against sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS.

Moreover, girls need to be empowered to make the right decisions at the right time. If they really decide to have sex, they have to think about what it means and what the implications of having sex are. To do so, they need to have the right information, they need to know where to get services, they need to know what it means having a baby, what are the consequences and the implications.

(b) Provision an opportunity for education: Re-entry policy might be a better opportunity for the teen mothers to obtain a chance to develop knowledge and skills to support their lives and fulfill their dreams. The Re-Entry Policy tries to address gender inequalities that have disadvantaged girls from accessing education in the country for many years. The policy is part of a wider strategy to improve education for girls.

Until 1997, pregnant girls were expelled from Zambian schools, while teenage fathers were not held responsible. The numbers of teenage pregnancies have been on a steady increase countrywide, according to the education department, with 9,111 reported pregnancies of school-going girls in 2005, compared to 12,370 in 2008.

The financial support offered through the Re-entry Policy and the child support grant, enabled more than a third of those teenage mothers returned to school after giving birth, the department noted.

To assist all poor children in the country, Zambian government offered almost 95,000 children in grades one to nine bursaries in 2008, with half of them being awarded to girls. This is a more than ten percent increase in bursaries since 2005.

Community Health and Nutrition, Gender and Education Support (CHANGES) programme ran for three years and helped more than 3,500 teenage mothers to return to school.

Kenya also has a “Return to School policy” which encourages the establishment of centres where young mothers could continue with their formal education while breast-feeding their children. It also calls for counseling for the girl, parents, teachers and other students in the school.

Tanzania is yet to implement the policy though the government has allowed for discussion and debates on the issue at different levels. While debates are going on, more girls are affected and drop out. There is a need to do something soonest.

There are several challenges which can face re-entry policy as follows:

(a) Household poverty: The Re-entry Policy needs to be combined with a more general educational grant to give all children a second chance at life as it is difficult, in villages, for parents to find money for school fees and uniforms, so many force their children out of school after grade seven. The reports on re-entry policy in Zambia note that despite the financial support, many teenage mothers continue to drop out of school because they find it difficult to balance their education and the obligations that come with being a parent.

(b) Lack of sustainability: Many of re-entry policy across the continent depend on external funding. In this situation sustainability after donor withdrawal is questionable. For example, in Zambia, one education programme named Community Health and Nutrition, Gender and Education Support (CHANGES) for teenage mothers run by American non-profit organisation Family Health Trust (FHT), was closed down at the end of last year.

A report by FAWE-Zambia observes that "Since the closure of CHANGES, the girls have remained at the mercy of the school administration. A small percentage have been put on the (government) sponsorship, while a bigger percentage are struggling for school fees or dropped out completely,"

(c ) Legislations not implemented: There are several laws that should protect young mothers' right to an education. The major problem with the law is that the Education Act in many countries has not been properly implemented.

In Kenya for example, the Act allows girls to stay in school up to the time they deliver, and resume their studies as soon as they are strong enough to. If a girl is denied this chance, then the parents or the girl can report to the nearest education ministry office and have the school compelled to re-admit her based on the Children Act or the Education Act. However, many head teachers expel girls immediately their pregnancy is discovered. Most girls lack support from parents, teachers or their classmates to challenge the expulsion.

They may also feel they deserve to be punished or feel too shy to re-join their classmates.

This is due to lack of legal backing or any official communication on how this guideline is to be implemented makes the policy weak and inconsistent. Many parents are either unaware of its existence or just ignore it.

(d) Culture: Some people blame social and cultural standards for girls’ failure to resume their education after pregnancy.

It has been held over the years by various communities and individuals that continuity in education for a girl terminates at the altar of pregnancy.

In order to ensure that re-entry programmes are successful, the following issues need to be considered when designing and implementing the policy:

(a) Political Will: The Zambian government did not capitulate, even when there appeared to be more voices against the policy, than those which support it. It maintained that expelling pregnant girls would make gender equality in the education system impossible.

(b) Guidelines: Availability of proper guidelines on how re-entry policy will be conducted is very essential. The guideline development should involve all stakeholders including the teen-mothers. The policy should be geared upon providing an opportunity for these girls to obtain another chance into the education programme and not to perpetuate immoral behaviour.

(c ) Acceptance of Change: there is a need for community to change and accept that this program is for the benefit of the girls and the community at large. In Zambia after seeing the benefits of the program many families has accepted and supported their children.

(d) Financial Support: not only to take over the financial responsibility for some of the most vulnerable girls. A little extra money to given for the girls’ other needs such as sanitary pads is essential. Some of the girls who have had children fall into this category and can benefit from the support, too. Girls who may have stayed away from school for financial reasons can continue with education.

I am aware that there is a fear among people that re-entry of young mothers to school might influence others to immoral behaviour knowing that they will also be readmitted if they get pregnancies.

But studies in the area have shown that there is no concrete evidence which reveal constructive societal returns from expelling pregnant schoolgirls and young mothers from education.

However, parents, community and the government at large should life skills education for girls and boys to make them aware of effects of pregnancy and should be encouraged to be more responsible for building their future through education achievement.

The writer is a specialist in Education Planning, Management, Financing, Economics of Education and Policy Studies. He can be reached through: 0754304181 or masozi.nyirenda@gmail.com

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
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