Durban - A decision by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health to implant contraceptives in 12 female students before they leave to study in India has been met with disbelief.
MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo said it would be paid for by the state to avoid “embarrassment” after four medical students were sent back from Cuba earlier this year because they had fallen pregnant.
He was speaking at a farewell dinner for 30 students who would study pharmacy and ultra-sonography on government bursaries with some private-sector sponsors.
Commission for Gender Equality chairman Mfanozelwe Shozi said: “No person should be forced to take contraception, it is their reproductive right.
“What worries me is why the male students are not subjected to similar treatments, why is it embarrassing for a female student to become pregnant?”
Marie Stopes spokeswomen Andrea Thompson said contraception was supposed to be about choice. “Not allowing the students to choose removes the whole point of reproductive freedom.
“The normal procedure would be for a woman to come in and be counselled on all the options available to her; every individual is different and may react differently to a type of contraceptive,” said Thompson.
Dhlomo said a lack of healthcare professionals meant the country had invested millions in bursaries for medical students to study abroad.
“However, experience has shown that, even though this is a rare opportunity for the recipients, nonetheless, they get pregnant,” said Dhlomo.
A statement said that making the “girl students” take the implant, “ensures they come back qualified; their dreams fulfilled and ready to serve their communities”.
The contraceptive implant, Implanon, is a matchstick-sized silicon rod inserted in the arm which releases small doses of hormones. It was launched in South Africa in January.
The department said it chose the contraceptive because the students would not be able to return to the clinic and it would prevent them from getting pregnant for up to three years.
“The students are counselled on the wisdom of the initiative before the procedure and the good thing is that they are all over 18 so can make (an) informed consent,” said Dhlomo.
There was no mention of what would happen to the bursary if a woman refused to have the implant.