How teen pregnancy affects rural African girls’ education
“If you make the very silly mistake of coming to this house with a big stomach, you won’t live here and there will be no more school fees for you.” This is what my mother would always say to me while I was growing up in the rural area of Chikomba District in Chivhu, Zimbabwe. She was undoubtedly referring to the fact that many girls in our area got pregnant and dropped out of school as early as the age of 13.
She shouldn’t have worried though: for as long as I can remember I dreamed of going to university. Though I had few role models to set a standard for my academic aspirations — the only people I knew who had gone to college were my teachers — I observed the way children in my rural area were raised, and I wanted to do something about it.
Children where I’m from grow up in an environment of extreme poverty and patriarchy. Their most basic needs are often unsatisfied and they are often mandated to provide labor to earn a living for their family. For example, children are frequently expected to go work on other people’s farming fields and earn money instead of spending the family’s money on school fees, books, pens, and other school requirements. Some girls decide to marry cattle herders at an early age, even as early as 13, just to run away from poverty in their homes. Parents rarely see their daughters as permanent members of their families, and as such early and forced marriages are still common.
There are currently no policies in Zimbabwe that protect girls who become pregnant while in school. Pregnant students are frequently forced out of their schools due to rules and regulations within the education system that discriminate against them. In fact, girls in this situation are called all sorts of names, like “mvana,” an insult name specific to unmarried girls who have children. The name labels these girls as failures, in turn leading them to feel hopeless about their futures. What’s more, even after a child is born and weaned, the idea of a mother going back to school is still taboo. Government schools do not accept mothers and there are no informal schools like colleges in rural areas.
Banned from school, a pregnant girl’s home is no more welcoming to her; she is expected to be taken care of by the person responsible for her pregnancy. That is, if that person will take responsibility. While pregnant students can’t avoid the consequences of their condition, the students who impregnated them can. Many boys responsible for a girl’s impregnation deny responsibility. Even if he is also chased out of his school, he can simply go to another one, while there are no schools that accept a pregnant student.
This social stigma willfully ignores the many causes of teenage pregnancies that are rooted far more in circumstance than young women’s character or personal decisions. For example, orphans in Zimbabwe lack basic necessities, not to mention parental or otherwise authoritative or educational guidance. According to the National Annual Education Statistics profile in Mashonaland East Province 2017, there were 3,321 female orphans in primary grades 1-7 and 2,570 female orphans in secondary schools. Young girls also lack counseling, role models their age, and career guidance. So many children from rural areas have potential but lack the self-confidence necessary to act on their talent in the way those born in urban areas, or at least with parents, can.
Pregnancy is also often a result of forced marriage. To be fair, Zimbabwe’s constitution has a web of legal frameworks that are intended to protect children from forced marriages; in 2013, Zimbabwe adopted a new constitution that stipulates that “no person may be compelled to enter marriage against their will” and calls on the state to ensure that “no children are pledged into marriage.” The Children’s Act and Marriage Bill also stipulates that “Every person who has attained the age of eighteen years has the right to found a family” and “No person may be compelled to enter into marriage against their will.” But these legal motions do little to address the social realities of girls in rural areas, who are still frequently forced to marry at young ages.
These young mothers have the potential to be the heart of development in these communities. If their education continues to be held contingent on the irregularities of life so common in rural areas, these communities are doomed to fail. Now that more people than ever are advocating for women’s rights, we need to seriously attempt to effectively apply these movements to remote areas. While the international standards of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Declaration, and other humanitarian efforts have provided the international community with a constant benchmark for the fulfillment of women’s rights, policy reform — not to mention cultural change — is still needed when it comes to girls’ education in Africa, particularly Zimbabwe.
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