Controversy swirls around BELA Bill: Will teachers be jailed if they refuse your child an abortion?

South Africa's education system faces a potential overhaul with the controversial BELA Bill, sparking heated debates over schools managing learner pregnancies and the broader implications for children's rights and parental roles. File Picture: Adrian de Kock /Independent Newspapers

South Africa's education system faces a potential overhaul with the controversial BELA Bill, sparking heated debates over schools managing learner pregnancies and the broader implications for children's rights and parental roles. File Picture: Adrian de Kock /Independent Newspapers

Published Jan 25, 2024


As the January 31 deadline looms for public comments on the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill - which will spell significant changes to South Africa’s education system - there is a growing outcry as to how schools handle learner pregnancies if the bill is passed.

According to the civic organisation which has been on a campaign overdrive to get people to oppose the bill, “teachers may be sent to jail or fined if they don’t facilitate girls of 12 years of age and older for abortions behind their parents backs”.

The Department of Basic Education has denied this interpretation of Clause 39 of the bill, which states: “Clause 39 seeks to amend Section 61 of the SASA (South African Schools Act) to extend the powers of the Minister to make regulations on the management of learner pregnancy;... The clause also provides for the possibility of creating offences in the regulations made by the minister. The amendment provides that any regulation contemplated in Section 61(1) may provide that any person who contravenes a provision of the regulation or fails to comply therewith is guilty of an offence”.

However, said: “Government seems to want us to think our interpretation of this issue is just one big mistake. However, the facts are that Clause 39 states that school-learner pregnancy will be regulated. And the actual School Learner Pregnancy Policy itself requires that teachers must assist learners of 12 years and older who wish to have abortions behind their parents’ backs. We then return to the regulations in the BELA Bill, which say that teachers who do not comply with the regulations may face fines or 6 months (adjusted from 12 months) in jail”.

According to the Department of Education’s School Learner Pregnancy Policy, the policy is meant to provide “guidance on the reduction of unintended pregnancies, management of their pre- and post-natal consequences, limitation of associated stigma and discrimination against affected learners, and, importantly, the retention and re-enrolment of affected learners in school”.

It adds: “Furthermore, this policy is informed by an agenda to eliminate gender disparities in education. This policy seeks to ensure accessible provision of information on prevention, care, counselling, and support, frameworks for impact mitigation, the choice of termination of pregnancy (CToP), and guidelines for systemic management and implementation”.

An article written by Ed Watchdog in the November edition of Concerned Citizen Publication argues that underlying these changes is the alignment with the Constitution of South Africa and the Children's Act No. 38 of 2005, notably Section 129 of the Children's Act, which allows children aged 12 and older to consent to medical treatment and surgical operations without parental consent.

This aspect raises significant questions about the privacy rights of minors and the role of parents in such decisions, as the policy ensures confidentiality, potentially leaving parents unaware of their child's medical choices, including abortions, the publication says.

The BELA Bill's implications extend to how schools handle learner pregnancies. Previously, such cases were referred to social services. However, the bill proposes that schools take a more active role, potentially transforming educational institutions into centres for social and welfare support, including facilitating access to abortion services.

This shift comes in response to alarming statistics indicating a rise in pregnancies among school-aged girls.

In 2019/2020, approximately 83,000 girls between the ages of 10-17 gave birth, with this number increasing to over 90,000 in the 10-19 age group in 2021/2022. Of these, 660 were under 13 years of age.

The government's approach to this crisis includes educational strategies and empowering schools to provide broader welfare services.

“So, is the BELA Bill an Abortion Bill? Many will say no. Not when one only reads Clause 39. (The words abortion and CSE are not mentioned in any of the 54 clauses.) However, when Clause 39 is examined alongside relevant policies and acts, the full implications become clear,” the publication notes.

In addition, the Bill seeks to:

Making Grade R Compulsory: The BELA Bill proposes to make Grade R the compulsory start of school. The Department of Basic Education estimates a need for R16 billion for this implementation, with R12 billion for infrastructure and R4 billion for staffing. Grade R, currently part of early childhood development (ECD), will expand to 7,888 schools under the new mandate.

Criminalising Parental Negligence in School Attendance: The bill seeks to criminalise parents who fail to ensure their children attend school, with potential jail time as a consequence. It also states that anyone disrupting school activities is liable to a maximum of 12 months in prison.

Home Education Regulation: The amendment allows the department head to conduct site visits before registering home education. It also enables the minister of basic education to regulate the registration and administration of home education, acknowledging the preference of some parents for homeschooling over public schooling.

Language Policy in Schools: The amendment requires school governing bodies to submit their language policies for approval. These policies must consider the linguistic needs of the broader community.

Sale of Alcohol on School Premises: The clause permits the possession, consumption, or sale of liquor at private or religious events on school premises.

Accommodating Religion in School Codes of Conduct: The bill proposes that school codes of conduct respect cultural and religious beliefs, including provisions for students to seek exemptions from certain code requirements.

Ban on Corporal Punishment: The bill reaffirms the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, proposing fines or imprisonment for those who administer it.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) along with the Freedom Front Plus have indicated that they intend to challenge the bill if it is passed, as it seeks to, among other things, disempower School Governing Bodies from determining language and admission policies at schools.

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