Pregnant in school? This is how South African law protects pupils

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"Punishing learners because they are pregnant is against the law and constitution."  Photo: Getty Images
"Punishing learners because they are pregnant is against the law and constitution." Photo: Getty Images

Many school-going South African girls are at risk of falling pregnant before they reach matric, and these learners often then drop out of school.

Reasons for this include discrimination by other learners and teachers, but with the right support a student can have her baby and still finish school. 

Parent24 takes a look at what this discrimination may look like, and how the Constitution, and other local laws in place, protect pregnant pupils. 

Prejudice and stigmatisation 

Punishing learners because they are pregnant is against the law and against the Constitution in South Africa, yet according to the Basic Education Rights Handbook, Chapter 8, pregnant pupils are discriminated against. 

The Handbook describes how pregnant girls often face teachers who appear unwilling to support them with access to books, notes, and homework while at home for the period necessary before giving birth, or during recovery afterwards.  

Pregnant pupils say they are often not provided with catch-up classes when they miss school for medical reasons and that some schools go as far as requesting that pregnant learners provide the school with money if they need medical attention while at school.

Practices such as these cause significant distress for pregnant learners and lead to a higher rate of dropout.

The Handbook stresses that both schools representatives and pupils need to be well informed to ensure that pregnant students have equal access to quality education, free of prejudice and stigmatisation. 

Read: Mom invites co-workers to her not-yet-pregnant daughter's baby shower

Pregnant pupil's rights

South African students have the right to have their inherent dignity protected regardless of pregnancy status, access to pregnancy prevention, termination measures, and healthcare services during or after pregnancy. 

The South African School's Act also makes it clear that it is against the law to unfairly discriminate against learners based on their pregnancy.

It is also important to note that pregnant students have a right to privacy, which means that it is against the law for teachers to disclose to students that one of their classmates is pregnant.

They have a right to confidentiality regarding their health status, just like every other pupil in the school.

Pregnant learners also have the right to make their own decisions concerning pregnancy prevention or termination measures during or after their pregnancy.

School-going fathers

One study on learner pregnancy in secondary schools in South Africa is of the view that learner pregnancy policies could be regarded as discriminatory as they are silent about teenage fathers.

While another study on young unmarried fathers' experiences and perceptions of fatherhood revealed that female learners are discriminated against, while male learners who impregnate female learners are exonerated from taking the responsibility.

As such, this study states that there is extensive pressure placed on the shoulders of female learners to take the blame and responsibility for the pregnancy.

In some cases, as indicated in the Handbook, unsupported, pregnant female learners are forced to secretly perform illegal and unsafe abortions, while the male learners continue with school as if nothing happened.

There is still a long way to go for South African laws to fully protect the pregnant learners and that starts with making the male learners accountable during and after the child is born. 

Also read: As many as 750,000 children have dropped out of school during the pandemic 

Take action against unlawful actions at school

The Constitution states that pregnant learners have the right to take a stand against unlawful actions against them.

Unlawful actions include: 

1. Being suspended from school or recommended for expulsion by the SGB

2. Being forced to go home without being told when you may return

3. If a school refuses to provide you with homework or tasks while you are away

4. Not being allowed to write exams

5. Being told to pay a deposit to the school in case of a medical emergency

6. Being told that you cannot attend school without a parent or someone responsible for you accompanying you

7. Being told to be at school until the day you give birth to your baby

8. Returning to school after giving birth, and the school refusing to provide a catch-up plan

9. Not being allowed to return to school, or only allowed to return sometime after giving birth

If these unlawful actions happen, pupils need to document their experience and note the conversations with the principal or teachers.

It is important that the pupil inform her guardian and ask them to come to the school to meet with the principal. 

Should the principal and pupil not reach an agreement, the pregnant pupil can approach her local education district office for assistance. The district office is responsible for all the schools in the area.

If the matter is not resolved in the local education district office, parents of the pregnant pupil can approach civil society organisations or the provincial education department.

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