Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The government’s draft policy on pregnant school pupils has drawn criticism for failing to put pupils’ rights to education at its centre.

The Equal Education Law Centre and Section27 say the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools draft policy "seems to emphasise the impact of learner pregnancy on government planning and national development. This can be seen, for example, in the … policy’s failure to outline measures to be taken during pregnancy and after delivery to ensure that learners return to school."

Earlier in 2018, the Department of Basic Education issued a gazette in which it invited comments from stakeholder bodies and members of the public on the proposed policy. The final day for commenting is Tuesday.

According to the department, the rate of pupil pregnancy in SA has become a major "social, systemic and fiscal challenge not only for the basic education sector but, crucially, for the national development in general".

"It impacts the lives of many young people often limiting their personal growth, the pursuit of rewarding careers and their ambitions with incalculable impact on the country’s socioeconomic systems," the department said.

In the draft policy the department sets outs its goals, guiding principles and policy themes to stabilise and reduce the incidence of pupil pregnancy and its adverse effects on the education system.

Among others, it seeks to ensure the accessible provision of information on prevention, terminations, and care, counselling and support.

It commits the basic education system and other role players to providing comprehensive sexuality education to ensure young people gain the knowledge and skills to make "conscious, healthy and respectful choices about relationships and sexuality".

But the Equal Education Law Centre and Section27 said in their submission that the draft policy was inconsistent on who was eligible to access pregnancy prevention services, comprehensive sexual education, and sexual reproductive health services.

"In particular, in some places in the draft policy access to [comprehensive sexual education] and [sexual reproductive health services] is limited by age, and in others it is provided without limitation.

"This results in internal inconsistencies which are further perpetuated by vague, undefined phrases, such as that the right of access extends to all learners ‘from the end of the primary phase’, or that access to condoms is dependent on the ‘level of inquiry or need’."

They said there was ambiguity in the provisions relating to ensuring the pregnant pupil’s access to education; the reasonable accommodation of pregnant pupils, and what "reasonable" accommodation means; and the factors to be considered for a pupil’s return to and retention in school after giving birth.

"Our key recommendations therefore call for the department to frame the draft policy in terms of the rights of learners to access basic education; provide greater clarity on what reasonable accommodation means and make provision for the return of learners after delivery; … include the protection of the rights of learner fathers; and include clear mechanisms through which learners can report abuses and appeal decisions."

Department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said the policy "asserts the constitutional rights of pregnant learners to continue and complete their basic education without stigma or discrimination".

He said all comments would be taken into consideration for the final draft of the policy.