Around one in four female school-going adolescents in South Africa report being pregnant. Of these learners, only 30-50% will return to school— contributing to the country’s concerning high-school dropout rate. Not finishing school due to pregnancy and early motherhood severely limits personal growth and opportunity, and impacts the greater socioeconomic landscape of our country.
While government policies have been developed to protect and support pregnant and mother learners, the reality is that most of these learners will not return or finish school. But why is this? Often, the case is complex and subtle barriers at school and home prevent learners from returning.
When you’re pregnant, you need to attend many clinic visits, which are usually during the school day— this means you miss a lot of classroom time. If the clinic is far, you may have to pay unaffordable transport fairs— already putting you at risk to drop-out and seek work to cover extra costs. At school, you may be teased or shamed for becoming pregnant. Your parents could be upset with you, or maybe because of customary practices, they expect you to leave school all together.
Once you have your baby, you will need to take maternity leave, putting you further behind your classmates. You may not have your own textbooks or study material to continue while you’re home. If you can find childcare for your newborn, you can go back to school, but if you don’t have a catch-up plan, you will most likely need to repeat the grade. But the longer you delay going back to school, the less likely it is that you will ever to return or finish.
Needless to say, it is not easy.
At Bulungula College, we have created an enabling pregnancy policy to ensure that our pregnant and mother learners are well supported and cared for during their pregnancy and postpartum. We have a Learner Support Desk that assigns an adviser to pregnant learners, providing them with administrative assistance (such as monitoring clinic visits and organising transport) and ongoing psychosocial support during school.
Our senior management meets with pregnant learners and their families to discuss and agree on a pre/post-natal schooling plan. Extra counselling and support is provided to parents and caregivers, to address any concerns they may have, and educate them on the importance of their child returning to school. This includes a plan for childcare at home once the learner gives birth.
We transport learners to clinic dates to minimise their time out of the classroom, and have a nurse at our nearby Bulungula Health Point who can respond to any medical needs while at school. We offer one month of maternity leave, and our Nomakhayas (community health workers) conduct daily home-checks to make sure mother and baby are healthy. Teachers, staff and other learners are sensitised to this policy, making it easier for the mother learner to return to school. Once she returns, the education catch-up plan is implemented. We are proud to report that our inclusive and extensive policy has resulted in a 100% pregnant learner retention rate at Bulungula College.
We have had a learner who was pregnant and gave birth during her Matric year, who successfully passed without needing to repeat. Another case: we accepted a pregnant learner who was asked to leave from her previous school for becoming pregnant, and she successfully returned to Bulungula College after giving birth, and decided to continue her studies with us.
While we need to make sure we create an enabling environment for pregnant and mother learners that is free of stigma or discrimination, our ultimate goal is prevention of unintended pregnancies and early motherhood. All of our learners are given comprehensive sexual and reproductive education at school, and we have ongoing health talks and campaigns during school assemblies. All female learners are given the option for contraceptives, which in the past were administered privately and confidentially at Bulungula Health Point, but newly started, are now administered at Bulungula College in our Wellness Wagon to further reduce time out of the classroom. The Learner Support Desk monitors all learners on contraceptives and records their dates, to ensure no dates are missed.
We recently shared our model and success at the Inception workshop: Supporting pregnant and mother learners return to school hosted by a UCT and Oxford University study project, HEY BABY. We got to hear from the Department of Basic Education and other civil-society organisations on how programmes like this can be realistically implemented across all of South Africa, even in the most rural and under-resourced areas of the country, like where we are.
We believe that educated and well-cared for children will carry families out of poverty and contribute to a thriving South Africa future.