Feature Article of Saturday, 6 October 2012
Columnist: Taniele Gofers
When a girl falls pregnant, her life turns upside down. Through shame and stigma, bullying and harassment, she is forced to withdraw from school. Nine months later, when she has the option to return, she faces the same hostile environment. She wonders how she will care for her child.
If she does make it back to school, she finds it difficult due to the time and learning she has missed. Ultimately discouraged, she withdraws from school, and fails to reach her academic potential. She fails to train in the profession she badly yearns for to enable her secure employment and she remains poor for her whole life.
In this story, there is a boy, too. His life continues as normal. He continues to go to school. Ultimately, he graduates. He has the opportunity to go to college, or university, to get a job. He becomes a lawyer, the job he always wanted. Just as it should be. The right to education is a universal human right. Every child, male or female, has the right to basic education. Despite this, a number of female students across Ghana, and indeed, around the world, are being denied the right to education because they become pregnant.
In Ghana, this denial of education comes in two main forms; direct and indirect. For instance, an example of direct denial of education occurred in March of 2011. The Daily Graphic reported that 17 pregnant students were dismissed from Aduman Senior High School when it was discovered, after forced testing, that they were pregnant.
While direct denial of education occurs, it is indirect denial of education that is far more common in Ghanaian schools. This can take many forms. Girls who become pregnant often face a lack of support, even outright hostility, if they choose to remain at school. Many schools turn a blind eye to, or even encourage, school environments that are not conducive to continuing education for pregnant students.
This can include physical barriers, such as bathroom facilities and classroom equipment, or emotional barriers, such as bullying, shame, teasing and intimidation. The Girls Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service, in 2008, identified teenage pregnancy as one of the major challenges to girl-child school retention. The Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) also recognised the link between teenage pregnancy and school dropouts in Ghana in their 2001 report on the situation of girls' education in sub-Saharan Africa.
Denying pregnant girls access to education is a denial of their fundamental human rights. And if that isn’t reason enough to lower school drop-out rates, girls who stay in school are able to make a better contribution – to their families, to their community, and ultimately, to the economic development of Ghana.
‘The Girl Effect,’ an international non-governmental organisation (NGO), reports that “when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.” But the benefits can be far more subtle than that. For instance, “an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent. An extra year of secondary school increases it to 15 to 25 per cent.” We are talking about real, not imagined, benefits to the girl, her community and wider society.
The Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC) is currently undertaking research into gender-based violence in schools in Ghana under a project funded by STAR-Ghana. While interviewing teachers about pregnant students, researchers were surprised by the level of misinformation, with several teachers insisting that pregnant students were not allowed to attend school.
This is, in fact, in direct contradiction to the Ghanaian constitution (Article 25), which states that basic education (two years of kindergarten, seven years of primary education and three years of junior high school) is compulsory. This is known as FCUBE – Free, Compulsory Universal Basic Education, and is a cornerstone in the efforts to protect and promote the human rights of children. Even more commonly, some teachers indicated that while pregnant students were allowed to attend school, they simply chose not to due to their own shame or embarrassment, or due to the judgement and actions of their peers at school. A student shared that this behaviour was common when students fall pregnant - if “they come to school they feel humiliated. They can’t come to school because we will laugh at them.” At best, headmasters and teachers are complicit in allowing these environments to take hold at their schools. At worst, they play an active part in discouraging pregnant students from attending school by contributing to these unsupportive environments.
HRAC researchers spent time interviewing and talking with students of all different ages from three target districts. Many students had the same misconceptions as their teachers – that students who fall pregnant are unable to attend school. One student shared her belief that girls were most affected by gender-based violence, as “if the boys sleep with you, then you get pregnant, [the] boy will go to school, and you will be in the house.”
Teachers who took part in the research assured researchers that students were able to return to school after they had given birth. However, the reality of this occurring is questionable. In the case that it does occur, it is far from being an ideal outcome. Students will have been away from school for many months and in this time, fall behind. A gap can form that is often impossible to bridge, and in some cases, students become discouraged and leave school again.
Research revealed, however, that school drop-out is just one element of a problem in Ghana that at its very ugliest can result in even more severe repercussions than discontinued education. One of the more horrifying stories that was revealed during HRAC’s research involved the rape of female students by a school administrator. Multiple students became pregnant as a result of being raped (the exact number was unclear from research). When these students terminated their pregnancies they were dismissed from the school as punishment.
According to Ghanaian law, cases of rape or defilement are exempted from the general illegality of abortion, and there was no ground for the dismissal of the students. The Administrator has never faced the legal consequences of his actions because he has run away. As a result of being raped, these students have been physically and emotionally scarred, and denied their right to education.
In order to stem school drop-out rates, the issue of teenage pregnancy needs to be addressed. But simply dismissing students who become pregnant (or who have abortions), approaches this issue from the wrong angle. And that angle, often times, seems to be placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the girl who becomes pregnant. It is she who is punished, dismissed from school and denied the right to an education, and in many cases, a prosperous future.
While pregnancy at such a young age is troubling, students should undoubtedly be assisted to continue their education. Becoming pregnant should not result in the end of a girl’s education, or a disruption in her schooling. While the challenges are many, she should be encouraged and assisted to complete her education. Students will then be able to create a life for themselves and for their children.
This issue also needs to be addressed at its heart. The prevalence of teenage pregnancies needs to be reduced through sex education and promotion of safe sex. Despite the continued message of abstinence, it is clear that some students are simply not taking the advice.
It is important to ensure that students know how to take precautions against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Increased sex education, and the creation of supportive environments for pregnant students – where bullying and harassment are not tolerated, will help to ensure that female student drop-out rates are reduced in the country.
Some moves to reduce the impact of pregnancy on school drop-out rates are already being made. The Ghana Education Service is currently developing a Girls Education Re-entry Policy to ensure that girls who become pregnant can resume their education after they give birth.
Furthermore, organisations like the Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC) continue to advocate for girls’ education, including raising awareness about incidences where girls have been dismissed from school due to pregnancy, in breach of the 1992 Constitution. HRAC strongly supports these initiatives and advocacy work, and encourages their continuation. Through these efforts, the girl, who remains poor her whole life, and the boy, who faces a life of possibilities, will finally have the same chance at a future.
The writer is the Communications Officer - Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Ghana