Education Amendment Act knocking down gender barriers

guest column:Sibusisiwe Marunda

SUNDAY October 11 was International Day of the Girl Child and for me, it was an opportunity to celebrate the Education Amendment Act, which I consider to be one of the most responsive legislations in the history of this country.

The Act, if effectively implemented, might give girls a second chance at realising their dreams and for some of them a chance to redeem their educational future post-COVID-19-induced lockdown-related pregnancies.

For the benefit of those who missed the gazetting of the Act, it outlaws expelling girls for falling pregnant and corporal punishment. This article will focus on why it is necessary to have a law that allows girls who fall pregnant to stay in school. I will write a follow-up on why it is also important to outlaw violent punishment in schools.

Divergent views
Understandably, there were mixed reactions to this new addition to our statutes. Some expressed fear that without the fear of being expelled from school, there was going to be a lot of teenage pregnancies. Others felt without the cane, teachers were powerless in the classroom.

All these reactions are normal and healthy considering where we are coming from. They create a duty upon the authorities to support communities to overcome their fears and embrace these positive changes. The media and other opinion leaders have a duty to inform, educate and influence their readership.

In that context, I was shocked by a cartoon in one of the local daily newspapers of a range of school uniforms labelled according to the number of trimesters during pregnancy.

This was in reference to the fact that girls will wear uniforms during pregnancy and this might involve changing uniform sizes as the pregnancy progresses. I found this not only in bad taste, but highly irresponsible.

Background to the new law
It is important for us to look at where, in coming up with this law, the legislature is coming from. For years, girls have been forced out of school because they have fallen pregnant, thereby losing the opportunity to realise their full potential.

Government had a school re-entry policy which was little known and not very actively implemented. Statistics from the Primary and Secondary Education ministry tell us that 12% of the 57 500 school dropouts were due to pregnancies or early marriages in 2018.

Ideally, girls should not be falling pregnant, they should be concentrating on their education. No parent wants his or her daughter to fall pregnant while still in school, including me.
Unfortunately, it’s not an ideal world and at times things go wrong. School girls do indulge in sexual activities, which at times result in unplanned pregnancies.

Drivers of teen pregnancies include poverty, where girls engage in transactional sex in order to access basics such as food, undergarments, sanitary wear and at times educational materials.

Some girls will, as part of poor management of adolescent pressures, engage in sexual activity with undesirable consequences.

There are some who are coerced into sex and this is confirmed by the 2017 Health and Child Care ministry National Teenage Fertility study report, which found that 54% of girls aged 10-14 years who had ever had a sexual encounter experienced rape or forced sex on their first sexual encounter.

There is also a group that does it in order to feel loved mainly because they are not getting love from where it’s supposed to come, that is, from parents or caregivers.

The bottom line is we have many young girls who fall pregnant and painful as this may be, we have to support them to still reach their full potential.

Lack of SRHR education
In spite of this evidence of teenage sexual activity as parents and caregivers we have refused to acknowledge, let alone do something about it. Due to cultural inhibitions, most parents cannot discuss issues related to sexual reproductive health (SRHR) with their teen children.

Resultantly, parents lose the opportunity to influence and direct the space of sex and sexuality for their children. What the average teen girl of today knows about sex is what she has heard from her friends, social media and her boyfriend.

The boys on the other hand get their information from social media and their friends who will usually present an approach of being the expert who has conquered many girls.

The value system for the boy is, therefore, distorted and heavily influenced by toxic masculinity.

By refusing to consider condoms, or SRH education for our child we send them into the world without knowledge other than from social media, no protection and the loudest voice they are hearing is their hormones and when they fall pregnant we throw them out of school. I don’t think that is very intelligent parenting!

Reality is it’s not only girls who indulge in early sexual encounters, but boys do so as well, but unfortunately, it’s the girl who falls pregnant.

Throwing the girl out of school while the boy continues with his education is not only discriminatory, but harmful to the development of the girl’s unborn baby.

We are cutting a mother to be from the opportunity to finish school and provide for her baby knowing full well that the duty to rear the baby falls on her and the father can just walk away.

Expelling a pregnant girl from school is meting out life permanent intergenerational punishment for a single mistake.

In most cases, this punishment condemns the girl to continued poverty and limits opportunities available to her child from birth.

After all has been said and done we have committed in our Constitution to observe the best interests of the child in all issues concerning children. Expelling a pregnant girl from school is clearly not in her best interest!

Stigma and educating teachers and learners
Initial reaction to this Act points to possible resistance by learners, parents and caregivers and maybe even teachers. Relevant government departments, therefore, have to use a multi-sectoral approach in ensuring buy-in by all concerned.

There is a lot of work to be done, in ensuring school authorities have clear guidelines on implementing the Act. We need to think through the process of maternity break and management of possible health challenges.

Possible stigma has to be acknowledged and spaces created for perception changing dialogue. In writing this article, I am very clear that this provision will not and must not replace the delayed sexual debut ideal, prevention in all forms.

I am also aware that some of our girls will need this provision and we all have to be prepared to make it work for them.

In order to reduce the number of girls who need to rely on this provision, our prevention efforts must also focus on redefining masculinity and training boys to take responsibility for their own sexuality.

Effectively implementing provisions of the Act will be a step towards delivering on the Beijing promise to girls that governments will take all necessary steps to ensure girls reach their full potential.

It will also be a step towards delivering on SDGs 4 and 5 on quality in education and gender equality for Zimbabwean girls.

We do need to give this new dawn of hope for our girls a real chance. We do need to ensure they get real education even when they have made a mistake. We do need to give them wings to fly to their equality!

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