Recent media reports about FAWE-Rwanda’s regulation that terminates the scholarship of girls who get pregnant while still in school triggered a lively public debate on the question of schoolgirl pregnancy.
Not surprisingly, FAWE-Rwanda got a lot of stick for what was considered an unjust decision.
As the story and reactions to it show, the question is often coloured by diverse views and attitudes of the public, which in turn inform the remedies they offer.
Some, steeped in religion or tradition look at schoolgirl pregnancy as a case of immorality or the breaking of social and cultural taboos. For these, premarital sex (where teenage sex falls) is a sin or a crime and those who engage in it are guilty and so should be punished.
This is what usually happens. The girl is punished with exclusion from school.
Others look at the question from a different viewpoint and argue that punishment as the story suggested is a violation of the rights of the child, and that in any case it is double punishment.
For these, the issue is one of injustice.
Many more are ignorant or indifferent and couldn’t be bothered by what happens.
The issue, however, is more complex than what stock attitudes suggest and is not simply a matter of right or wrong, just or unjust.
And so dealing with it requires a different approach: one free of moral posturing or blame game, or the haste to judge and punish, but one that shows more understanding and willingness to help.
First, young people who engage in sex should not be condemned as sinful little devils. They are more likely victims of deceitful adults who dangle little promises or threaten with power, or of poverty and ignorance.
I am not aware of any statistics that show which males are involved in the pregnancies, but most likely they are not the girls’ age mates but older people.
And if any data exists, it would probably show that the victims are usually the poor and vulnerable, mostly rural, because they do not have the power, means or knowledge to resist unwanted advances.
The more affluent and urban are generally more worldly-wise and know how to take care of themselves.
Second, schools should be helped to cope with such situations whenever they arise and not opt for the easy, but in the end more costly, way out. I am not sure whether there is a policy on how to handle schoolgirl pregnancy and, more importantly, the right to return to school after delivery.
As it is, school heads are left to deal with the matter as best they can, and to be fair to them, there are tough considerations they have to take into account.
Prevailing cultural and religious attitudes mean that there is still a stigma and sense of shame and guilt attached to young girls getting pregnant. They experience it from their peers, teachers and even family members. In the extreme, stigma leads to isolation and all the consequences of that state.
The girls do not have the right support and their self-esteem suffers greatly as a result.
School authorities also regard such girls as potentially a bad influence on the rest.
It need not be this way. There are many things that can be done, first to prevent pregnancy, but in the event that it has happened, to make the girls more accepting of their circumstances and also be accepted by others.
One way is to integrate into the school curriculum life skills that empower young people, build their confidence and self-esteem, and that give them the ability to navigate through the pitfalls of growing up and negotiate their way through other social pressures.
Another is to make available counselling services in schools. As it is today, our schools are not structured or equipped to provide this important service to the school community, including teachers.
Teachers are hired to teach only. The ones that should do some counselling are more concerned with enforcing school rules, maintaining law and order if you like, to have much time for individual needs of their charges.
Students, both girls and boys, need some avenue for opening up, seek advice and report unwanted advances. They need a person they can trust, to whom they can reveal their confidences, fears, struggles and plans of whatever nature without the fear of being judged as wrongdoers and punished.
Then there must be an opportunity for re-entry into school after delivery. It is not always easy. Girls must be helped to re-integrate. Other students and staff must also be educated to accept them.
Finally, if there is any punishment, it should be given to the real villains who make the girls pregnant, not the victims.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.