Re-integrating Student Mothers into Schooling Post-pregnancy: The Conflict of Pregnancy, Policy, and Culture in Malawi
This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series.
“I tried as much as possible to hide the fact that I have a baby. I did not disclose...Most of the time, the breasts of someone who has breastfed change shape. It was a challenge...I was forcing myself to bath very early before anyone else so that people should not know...should not see how my breasts are.”
- Martha (Pseudonym), Student mother in a boarding school
For many girls in both rural and urban contexts, becoming pregnant while in primary or secondary school results not only in stigma and ridicule by communities at home and in school, but it may also end a girl’s education, increase her vulnerability to poverty, and multiplies her dependency and social exclusion. Unfortunately for many pregnant learners and student mothers, both teachers and peers are complicit in painting the shame and ridicule, reducing girls’ agency and increasing their vulnerability to dropping out of school.
An estimated one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa may be blocked from returning to school once they reopen after closures due to COVID-19. Evidence shows that since girls spend more time out of school during crisis, there are increased risks of sexual violence and exploitation, resulting in early and unintended pregnancies. In a recent needs assessment conducted by Loving Arms Malawi, an organization that I co-founded in 2014, girls in our scholarship fund explained that being out of school due to COVID-19 has reduced access to peer support and engagement and increased “idleness resulting into spending a lot of time with boys in the community.”
What policies are in place?
According to Professor Bagele Chilisa from the University of Botswana, there are three types of national policies on pregnancy in Sub-Saharan Africa’s education systems: expulsion policies, re-entry policies, and continuation policies.
- Expulsion policies require pregnant students to immediately leave school and have no prospects for returning to school post-pregnancy.
- On the other hand, although seeming to create opportunities for readmission into the school system,
- Re-entry policies also require pregnant students to leave school, but allow them to return post-pregnancy. While these policies do allow for readmission into formal schooling, they still interrupt girls’ schooling.
- Continuation policies allow the girls to remain in school during pregnancy without any “mandatory absence” requirements.
Malawi implements a re-admission policy, which includes a mandatory withdrawal from school once the pregnancy is discovered and a once-in-a-lifetime re-entry opportunity. This means that girls only have one chance to return to school. If they become pregnant a second time, they will not be allowed to return to school. Despite the existence of readmission or continuation policies, many young mothers do not return to school after pregnancy. Policies alone are not strong enough to protect girls’ rights and ensure their return and retention in school.
What are the challenges?
Emergencies and crises around the world create additional challenges. For example, pandemics such as COVID-19 and Ebola have exacerbated adolescent pregnancy and school dropout, particularly due to school closures and restrictions in movement. During the first wave of COVID-19 in between March and July 2020, the Malawi Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare commissioned a rapid assessment study on child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Across the country, a total of 44,178 teen pregnancies and 20,109 child marriage cases were recorded. With such an increase in teen pregnancies during the pandemic, it is likely that many girls will not return to school after COVID-19.
Even when girls do return to school post-pregnancy, they often do not receive the necessary support and may find themselves ostracized in the school community. Some student mothers even face open hostility within the learning spaces, as shared by Chimwemwe:
“Even the teachers mocking me...everything was so bad…that was part of tease that I returned to the school [after delivering a baby]. I was not being used as a good example...it was not for a good reason that they were using me as an example in the classroom [of what not to become] …it hurt me.”
- Chimwemwe (Pseudonym), Student mother in a boarding school
Next Steps: Re-conceptualizing Schooling Post-Pregnancy
So how can we make schooling more accessible to young mothers? One recommendation is to move towards an Ubuntucentric approach for schooling post-pregnancy. Ubuntu is a post-colonial philosophy originating from the Bantu people of Southern Africa. It centers on humanness and the sense of self rooted in the common bonds of society and communal approaches that govern the social, political, spiritual, and moral spheres of society.
An Ubuntucentric approach centers on building relationships that not only humanize students but also work with student mothers to identify their needs and ways to support them. An Ubuntucentric approach highlights the complex interactions between schools, families, and communities and works within those to ensure effective and holistic support for teen mothers. In practice, it looks like:
Respect and Dignity
- Abstaining from teasing and inflammatory language as well as implementing “punitive”/disciplinary action against students and teachers bullying student mothers and pregnant learners.
- Embracing student mothers’ redefined commitment to education.
Interdependency and Collaboration
- Collaboration between schools, families, and communities (e.g. mother groups).
- Sensitization campaigns in schools and communities against bullying and stigmatization, as well as raising awareness about the importance of continuing schooling post-pregnancy.
- Teacher training on supporting student mothers’ resilience and wellbeing.
Mutually beneficial relationships
- Social networks (E.g., Girls’ clubs, mentoring, peer support).
- Engagement with trusted adults in both schools and communities.
Equity and Compassion
- Parental support (e.g., childcare, tuition, school fees, shelter).
- Refusing policy-flouting practices and gendered policies.
- Institutionalizing counseling/mental health support for pregnant learners and student mothers.
Inclusion and Acceptance
- (Re)conceptualizing continuation/re-entry practices (E.g., night school, psychosocial support, proactive school administration and teachers)
- Resisting mandatory withdrawals and once-in-a-lifetime practices.
Policy guidelines alone are not enough. We must refuse inclusive-exclusionary practices such as mandatory withdrawals or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and replace them with holistic, humanistic approaches to keep girls in school during and following pregnancy.
About the Author
Pempho Chinkondenji is a Ph.D. Candidate in Education Policy and Leadership with a concentration in International Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her doctoral research focuses on women and girls’ education, particularly on school (re)integration for student mothers, pregnancy-related policies, and girls’ schooling in crisis. Pempho’s scholarship utilizes post-colonial and African feminist thought to interrogate gender and power dynamics in educational and development spaces.