A proposed “maternity vacation” law has divided opinion in largely conservative Zimbabwe, with most parents saying it will be a passport for promiscuity while child rights activists applauded the move.
The proposed maternity vacation is contained in an Education Bill currently being discussed in the National Assembly.
If it sails through parliament, the bill will allow girls who fall pregnant during the course of their studies to take time off to give birth before returning to continue with their education.
Proponents of the bill, including Primary and Secondary Education Minister Paul Mavima, argue that the move is in line with Zimbabwe’s Constitution, which calls for non-discrimination.
“The fundamental basis of the inclusion of this issue is premised on Section 75 of the Constitution, which speaks against discrimination,” Mavima told state media.
He described as discriminatory the current practice where schoolgirls are forced to drop out of school when they fall pregnant while their boyfriends, who at times are fellow students, are allowed to proceed with their education.
Others, like lawyer and former legislator Jessie Majome, believe the move is a positive development that will level the playing field for school girls and boys.
“It is a positive development that goes beyond paying lip service to the constitutional guarantees to the rights to education of the child, and to equality and protection from discrimination,” she said.
Eighteen-year-old high school student Grace Tinarwo also applauded the move.
“Girls, pregnant or not, should be given the same opportunities as boys to further their education. I therefore totally support the decision by government to introduce maternity leave for pregnant girls,” Tinarwo said.
She noted that, given Zimbabwe’s demographic set-up where women comprise more than 52 percent of the population, there are serious long-term socio-economic implications of banishing girls from school once they fall pregnant.
“We run the risk of having a significant proportion of our society heavily dependent on social welfare and involved in various vices unless they are given the opportunity to attain an education,” she said.
However, the move has been roundly criticised by ordinary Zimbabweans, particularly those with school-going children.
“My fear is that this will negatively influence school children since this will be viewed as a go-ahead to indulge in sexual activities, fully knowing that there will be no serious repercussions for their actions,” said Harare resident Esnath Musonda, a mother of two high school children.
She said the current practice where the girl would drop out of school provided “checks and balances” for all the parties involved – the school, parents and the children.
“Allowing nursing mothers to return to class would pose serious challenges for school authorities. For example, will the girls be allowed to take breast-feeding breaks or to leave early in order to go and feed their children?” Musonda said.
Another Harare resident Gilbert Sangiza concurred, saying allowing pregnant girls to return to class after taking maternity vacation would send a wrong message to other school children.
“We should not forget that school children are very impressionable. They are likely to admire their peers and do the same thing. At the end of the day we are likely to have entire schools full of young mothers,” Sangiza said.
However, despite these misgivings about the proposed law change, the Zimbabwean authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place.
The country has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, with between 500 000 and 700 000 girls dropping out of school each year due to teen pregnancies.
Faced with pressure from women’s rights groups, the government is, therefore, faced with the choice of either allowing a significant proportion of the population face a bleak future after dropping out of school or of capitulating to the issues raised by concerned parents.