Durban - A new draft policy which sets out how schools should support pregnant pupils and protect them from discrimination is expected to be published for public comment before the end of this year.
The policy is expected to put an end to schools expelling or excluding pregnant pupils, and will emphasise that pupils have the right to remain at school during and after their pregnancy.
The new draft policy is expected to deviate substantially from the 2007 policy, which stated that a pupil who was aware that a peer was pregnant should immediately inform the school.
According to the old policy, pregnant pupils may be “required” to take a leave of absence, which could extend to two years. “No learner should be readmitted in the same year that they left school due to a pregnancy,” the 2007 policy states.
It was at the SA Aids Conference in Durban that the Basic Education Department had in passing referred to the draft policy being in the works.
Spokesman Elijah Mhlanga confirmed on Thursday that the document was in the process of being refined, and that a review of the old policy had become necessary because of cases in which schools asked pregnant pupils to leave school entirely, or for a certain period.
One such case, in the Free State, went all the way to the Constitutional Court.
The Free State schools Welkom High and Harmony High were ordered to review policies which sought to keep two pupils out of the classroom for the duration of their pregnancies. Two years ago, the Equal Education Law Centre intervened when two pregnant girls from a Gauteng school were forced to be absent from school before giving birth, and for three months afterwards.
The pupils were also asked to pay a R200 deposit for use in case of an emergency.
The centre argued that the matter highlighted the need for clarity - at a national level - on how schools should assist pregnant pupils and ensure that the girls finished school.
In a parliamentary reply to a question posed by DA MP Sonja Boshoff, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga disclosed that 20 000 South African schoolgirls had fallen pregnant last year - 3 000 of whom lived in KwaZulu-Natal. A study co-authored by a University of Cape Town professor found that of a sample of 673 girls aged 15 to 18 who were childless in 2008, the teens who later became mothers had twice the odds of dropping out of school by 2010, and nearly five times the odds of failing to matriculate.
The study, published last month in the journal Studies in Family Planning, is the work of UCT professor Tom Moultrie and Professor Ian Timaeus of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Timaeus and Moultrie used data from South Africa’s National Income Dynamics Study for their work, which suggested that in South Africa interventions which addressed poor school performance would also reduce teenage pregnancies.
Their study affirmed how pregnant pupils were treated varied between provinces, and from school to school. Some teachers were against having pregnant girls and teenage mothers at school even when it contradicted the school’s official policy.
Timaeus and Moultrie argued that late enrolment at school, and having repeated grades, raised girls’ chances of giving birth as teenagers.
It was girls from low-income backgrounds attending fee-charging schools who were most likely to be behind at school, and at highest risk of becoming mothers as a result.
One explanation was that those girls who were failing at fee-charging schools (who often came from poorer backgrounds) might experience greater stigmatisation and alienation from the schooling system than low achievers at no-fee schools.
Basic Education’s new draft policy will emphasise the right to education, to dignity, and to privacy. It will seek to reduce unintended pregnancies among pupils, and arm teenage mothers with the knowledge to make informed choices on health care during pregnancy and after giving birth.
It is expected to stipulate that each school appoint a teacher who pupils may talk to about preventive measures and health care during pregnancy - in a confidential and non-judgmental manner.
Pupils who decided to take a leave of absence from school were to be allowed to do so.