Of married high school students and teen pregnancy
MASERU – Imagine a high school where scores of female students are married, with some having to hitch-up their skirts because of their advanced state of pregnancy.
Picture the “nauseated” learners probably holding handkerchiefs to manage the repeated spitting of saliva. And don’t forget the frequent need to answer the call of nature owing to their compromised urinary system.
And after walking in and out of the classroom in the current soaring spring temperatures, you can just visualise some of the pregnant students taking a nap during a lesson.
There could be no guaranteeing “peace” in the classroom either because of their mood swings: the teacher might just have to “watch out” in case the situation gets out of hand.
During break time, listen carefully to the married students’ conversations. Some are barely 17 years of age but, alas, you could be hearing them discuss issues ranging from husbands’ behaviour and pregnancy-related problems to electricity and water bills, as well as nagging in-laws.
Yes, right within the schools, those very institutions where many people assume purity prevails.
But that is not all.
Emergencies can also happen amid the “innocence”, which becomes more pronounced when students are in their neat uniforms.
In case of premature labour, then officials would have to drop the serious school business and rush the student to hospital.
And to add onto the responsibilities of Lesotho’s modern-day teacher, he or she also has to counsel the expecting mother on the need to make time for her books, while she is absent from school awaiting delivery of the baby.
The depiction of a 16-year-old girl, for instance, holding a textbook while a baby pulls at her sore breast was devastating, the Deputy Principal of Maseru High School, Moletsane Ranyali told Public Eye on Monday last week.
He described the situation at his school as “abnormal” and “un-school-like”.
Maseru High School had “all sorts of students” – a Public Eye investigation has revealed – where some of the girls claimed they were in love with other female learners, while married students demanded respect that goes with their status.
Disciplining some of the married students could yield nasty results and even mean the Deputy Principal has to “duck” for his life, Ranyali said.
According to Ranyali, a soldier armed with a pistol recently came to the school demanding to know why he had “beaten” his wife.
Maseru High School did not have “wives” but only students, Ranyali had told him.
But he might not be so lucky next time, with many other girls tying the knot and seeing no evil in starting their families while still at school.
At his school, Ranyali said there was no clear policy on what should happen to students who fall pregnant owing to a government policy that was silent on the matter.
“It is a double-edged sword because not only are students jeopardising chances of becoming leaders of tomorrow; they are also risking contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases,” Ranyali said.
This was the message he and other teachers preached every school day and yet some students were clearly not taking heed.
“We have many children here who can easily be influenced by those married and seemingly happier students.”
He said although it was a positive development that married and pregnant students were not deprived of their education, there was need to strengthen the protection of other learners.
“We are worried because we seem to be having a high number of students infected with HIV. Some of our students miss classes in order to collect their Anti-Retroviral Drugs every month,” Ranyali said.
He explained, considering the scenario where teenage students were fast becoming parents and indulging in unprotected sex, it was difficult to tell whether they might have been infected at birth or after they became sexually active.
The school had no “accurate” statistics of how many girl students were married, he said, but emphasised: “They are many and some keep it a secret.”
However, Maseru High has come up with a new strategy, which –to an extent – might ensure it remains a “normal” school.
All married students are wives and mothers at home, while at school, they are treated like any other pupil.
“This is because I grew up believing formal schools are places of the highest discipline. They are institutions of learning where innocent children are nurtured and guided into a great future.”
But for Ranyali, it has been a rude awakening that the times are, indeed changing.
Education has become a universal basic human right, which all governments in Africa are working hard not to deprive all students, despite their potential to sway others in a bad way.
And as a result, expelling errant students – according to Ranyali and some teachers interviewed last week – had become the most difficult act, leading to the erosion of morals and discipline at many schools.
“It is difficult to instill that sense of purity in our schools because students are pampered in the name of child-rights such that even the rule-of-a-stick, could backfire.”
Ranyali again lamented the lack of clear government policy on how to treat pregnant or married schoolgirls.
“If a student falls pregnant and subsequently gets married, our hands are tied because there is no policy empowering us to expel her.”
Conversely, once students got married, some parents wanted to make it official by informing school authorities of their children’s new status, which Ranyali said compounded an already complex situation.
“We have marriage certificates brought by parents to inform us their daughters are now married and we should treat them with respect.”
One of the students whose marriage certificate was brought to the school recently is an 18-year-old doing Form D.
She is five months pregnant.
“My parents wanted us to get married once they found out I was pregnant,” she told Public Eye on Monday last week.
In her tight-fitting school uniform and wearing a gold-plated wedding ring, the student – who requested anonymity– broke down as she narrated her story, insisting she regretted her “mistake”.
Now married and too late to turn back, she has to deal with marital and economic stress, while books also demand her attention.
“I was very sick during the early months of my pregnancy and the only problem I now have is sleeping in class,” she said.
After school, she has to rush home, clean the house and prepare meals for her husband.
“My life has changed and I know I have to read harder than before to pass Mathematics and Physics which I failed last term.”
She said she would like to do business studies at the National University of Lesotho.
“I would like to start my own business when I graduate from NUL.”
Another married Form D student, Puleng Phafoli, aged 22 and also a mother-of-one, said she was grateful the system allowed her to return to school even after marriage.
“I want to be a nurse and am working hard because since I got married, I now understand the importance of education,” she said.
Phafoli said although she interacted with her unmarried fellow students, she did not encourage them to become mothers before completing their education.
However, Maseru High is not the only institution where married students attend school.
Vuyani Tyhali – a teacher at Matsipe High School in Mafeteng – says this is the scenario at “a number” of schools in the country.
Some of the married learners also work harder than the rest of the students, he says.
“We have more than 10 married students at my school and in years gone by, I have taught many who have made it to university,” he told Public Eye on Monday last week.
Tyhali said although having married or pregnant students in schools might influence other students in a bad way, it also had its own advantages.
“The system seeks to keep our girls in school and also understands the involvement of the boy child, whose schooling is not affected should he impregnate someone,” he said.
Principal of St James High School, Ben Major, said although he ran a church school where high morals were expected, it was not spared the “evils” affecting other schools.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have angels learning here although we are a church school,” he said.
Many students have fallen pregnant over the years with some of them disappearing for a week before returning “mysteriously” not pregnant.
“There is not much we can do about that because if we are to pay attention to the one who is pregnant and who might have aborted their pregnancy, then we are depriving quality time and education to many who are here to learn,” he said.
Major said a significant number of students fell pregnant, especially when they were about to write their final Form E exams.
“We don’t expel them but allow the students to write their exams.”
He said in case a student from other lower classes fell pregnant, she was allowed to go and mother the child and could be admitted a year later.
“But we don’t accept such type of students from other schools.”
He said there were no married students he knew of at the school, but after realising the risks some of the students were taking, the school decided to take the practical route.
“We don’t preach condom-use here because we expect our students to be children abstaining from sex. However, from time to time, we invite child-experts to lecture the students on pregnancy and HIV and Aids.”
Major said there was an urgent need to aggressively deal with the issue of pregnancy among schoolgirls, especially at rural schools where there was a high drop-out rate among female pupils.
“Rural students are far away from facilities which urban students can easily access. Here we know many of our students remain in school because some of them abort the pregnancies, which seems to be something difficult for rural students to undertake.”
During a heads of schools meeting in Butha Buthe held recently, he said there was a representative from one school in Tsehlanyana who had indicated up to 20 students had dropped out in a single year, after falling pregnant.
Sefika High School principal, Keneilwe Mahula, said students from her school disappeared once they fell pregnant.
“We sometimes suspect some might be pregnant but the thing is, if they don’t give us any problems nothing happens,” she said, meaning a student might look pregnant this week but be “normal” the following week.
As a result, the school cannot prove the pregnancy, she explained.
She said her school – which is run by the Lesotho Evangelical Church – did not know how to deal with pregnant students, if they were to declare such status.
“This is because we have a policy that doesn’t address that aspect.”
Mahula said it was also difficult to know whether some of their students could be married.
“Such issues are not even asked when students are looking for a place here. We are only interested in their results.”
However, she remembers how, “a few years ago”, one of their students who had come to collect her COSC results brought with her, her child and disclosed she was married during the time she was at the school.
Mahula – who is also Commissioner of the Lesotho Girl Guides Association – said there was need to strengthen girls’ networks in schools.
“We need our girls to value themselves and understand the need to preserve their virginity until the right time.”
She said although some schools openly accepted married and pregnant students, they must always preach the need for all students to abstain from sex and remain focused on their studies.
“There is nothing special about early marriage. It can never be an achievement; this is actually a demon we have to fight with every available resource,” she said.
However, repeated efforts to get clarification from the Principal Secretary for Education, Motsoakapa Makara on what the education policy said with regards married students and those who fell pregnant, were fruitless.
Director of Bureau of Statistics, Liengoane Lefosa, meanwhile, lamented a high teenage pregnancy rate in the country.
“In communities where early childbearing is common and HIV prevalence disturbingly high, both boys and girls are placing themselves at risk,” she said.
She, however, noted the fertility rate among adolescents had declined between 1989 and 1996.
“It started increasing between 1996 and 2006, therefore, confirming our fears that school-going children are not abstaining from sex.”
According to the latest teenage-pregnancy rates statistics in Lesotho’s 10 districts, Mohale’s Hoek was leading at 43,3 percent, followed by in Quthing (42,3 percent), Thaba-Tseka (42,2 percent) and Mafeteng (40,5 percent).
“Mokhotlong District has a 40,3 percent teenage-pregnancy rate; 39,5 percent for Qacha’s Nek, Butha-Buthe 37,9 percent, Berea District 37,8 percent, Maseru 37,2 percent and Leribe 37,0 percent.”