Following an increase in teen pregnancies during the recent COVID-19 lockdown that left learners at home for close to two years, the Ministry of Education advised schools to allow all girls back to school regardless of whether they were pregnant or breastfeeding. According to the ministry, the move is aimed at eliminating school dropouts among the girl child. This has evoked discussions between human rights, societal norms and religious beliefs.
Deriving the argument from Ugandan cultural settings, some people say that pre-marital pregnancy among girls is stigmatized both in school and in communities mainly on moralistic grounds. Often, in both school and community settings, girls who get pregnant while still in school are victimized, seen as a waste, a curse for their families, a bad omen and a gone case. But this is a misnomer that should be condemned by the authorities.
The effect of this discourse is that pregnant girls have faced all kinds of punishments, including discriminatory practices that deny them the enjoyment of their right to education. In some communities, education is regarded as a privilege that can be withdrawn as a punishment.
A growing number of governments in Africa have adopted laws and policies that protect adolescent girls’ right to stay in school during pregnancy and motherhood. And indeed, far more countries protect young mothers’ right to education in national law or policy than discriminate against them.
Although the decision of the government to opting to keep adolescent mothers in school is strong, implementation of this policy might fall short due to lack of monitoring of adolescent mothers’ re-entry to education.
Despite this positive step by the government, some societies still impose beliefs that directly discriminate against pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. Some schools resort to harmful means to identify pregnant girls, and sometimes stigmatize and publicly shame them. Some conduct mandatory pregnancy tests on girls, either as part of official government policy or individual school practice. These tests are usually done without the consent of girls and infringe on their right to privacy and dignity. Some girls fear such humiliation that they will preemptively drop out of school when they find out they are pregnant, while others will go to great lengths to procure unsafe abortions, putting their health and lives at risk.
The government should commit to its inclusive human rights obligations toward all children, and ensure they adopt human rights compliant policies to protect pregnant and adolescent mothers’ right to education.
End Pregnancy-Based Discrimination in Schools in Policy and Practice. Ensure cases of sexual harassment and abuse, and that cases are duly investigated and prosecuted. Adopt positive re-entry policies and expedite regulations that facilitate pregnant girls and young mothers of school-going age returning to school. Ensure that pregnant and breastfeeding students who wish to continue their education can do so in an environment free from stigma and discrimination.
All girls have a right to education regardless of their pregnancy, marital or motherhood status.