To punish or not to punish: Kenyan educator tackles student pregnancy

Wednesday October 23 2013


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It was a little story in the Nation yesterday. A 19-year-old student in a Busia school in western Kenya was rushed to hospital where she gave birth at 6.45am.

As it happened, she was a candidate for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam. Exactly one hour 15 minutes after having her baby, she was writing her English exam from her hospital bed.

And the County Education director, Ms Mary Atalisa, was at hand to make sure she had delivered safely and was taking her exam. Of course, she lamented that too many school girls were getting pregnant in the area, but nevertheless, she still wished mother and child well. It was enough to make one misty-eyed.


Student pregnancy is one of the most controversial issues anywhere in the world, and one of the worst nightmares for parents. In Africa, over half the countries take a Medieval view: Pregnant pupils are expelled from school.

Kenya has developed a more enlightened attitude in recent years. Other countries like Tanzania aren’t so tolerant.

When one looks closer at the statistics, a very uncomfortable picture emerges about the high price school girls pay for pregnancy. One of the most unnerving reports on it appeared 13 years ago in publication of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (Fawe).

Consider the education picture in the developing world at the time of that 2000 Fawe report.

•More than 130 million 6-11 year-olds were out of school. Some 81 million (60 per cent) of them were girls!

•More than 273 million 12-17 year-olds were out of school, 148 million (54 per cent) of whom were girls!

•Of the 100 million children who were dropping out school before completing four years, two-thirds were girls. Into that picture, throw in pregnancy.

At that point, 20 per cent of the female adolescents in most countries in sub-Sahara Africa were giving birth every year.

In Kenya, by age 20, about 21 per cent of adolescents had had at least one child, and 8,000 to 13,000 girls were dropping out of school each year due to pregnancy.

Between 1990-1994, pregnancy was the highest cause of dropout among girls in Ghana, and because most of them were from the poorer families, they could not secure safe abortions to avoid being expelled from school.

The result, Fawe reported, was that a study in Uganda under 20-year-olds constituted a staggering 60 per cent of patients who died due to abortion complications.

So, how much have things improved 13 years later? Not much. This September, a Centre for Reproductive Rights report noted that more than 55,000 Tanzanian schoolgirls have been expelled from school over the last decade for being pregnant, which only perpetuates their vulnerability and poverty.


What makes this more tragic, according to a Reuters Foundation story on the CRR report, a 2009 national survey that found that almost a third of Tanzanian girls who had sex before the age of 18 said that it was against their will.

There is always comical aspect to all these things. For example, Evelyne Opondo, CRR’s Nairobi-based Africa director, was quoted telling Reuters Foundation that while Tanzanian schools carry out mandatory pregnancy tests, to save money, they do not do the standard urine tests.

Instead, they order the teenagers to remove their tops so that teachers or healthcare providers can look at — or feel — their breasts and touch their abdomens to detect the kicks of a foetus. A pregnant woman’s stomach has no palpitation until after three months.

Yet, for all that, Tanzania’s “crisis” is not as bad as South Africa’s. While the South African constitution forbids the expulsion of pregnant students, schools still do it because they don’t know how to cope.

Well, some 182,000 South African teenagers get pregnant each year. An official study in 2002 reported one in every three teenage girls there had been pregnant by the age of 19!

When it comes to pupils, 180 out of 1,000 become pregnant or make someone pregnant every year.

There is no easy solution to the question of student (and indeed, teenage) pregnancy. Perhaps we could all head to Busia and visit with Atalisa. She might teach us compassion and how not to lose our heads — as good a beginning point as any.