Windhoek-Namibian members of parliament are calling for a revamp of the country’s policy meant to respond to the high incidence of learners falling pregnant amid claims that the policy, while noble, might have undesirable consequences.
Addressing Namibian MPs, including those from the Committee on Gender Equality, Social Development and Family Affairs recently, Christel Menette, a clinical psychologist within the ministry, explained that the the policy was meant to prevent pregnancies among learners in Namibian schools.
“The perception out there is that this policy is there to promote pregnancy. That is not the intention,” Menette said during a session chaired by MP Ida Hoffman.
She said the ultimate goal of the policy was to improve the prevention and management of learner pregnancy; to decrease the number of learners that fall pregnant; and to increase the number of learners that fall pregnant but complete their formal education. The policy sought, also, to promote participatory decision-making among all stakeholders.
Menette said studies had revealed that learners fall pregnant due to a variety of factors including: peer pressure; consensual sex; lack of contraceptives or incorrect use of contraceptives; lack of parental guidance; rape; gender inequality; sugar daddies and mommies; poverty; and lack of knowledge.
She warned that not addressing learner pregnancy and excluding learners that fall pregnant had dire consequences.
She explained that Namibia had been guided by international guidelines including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW,) in developing the policy. The policy applied to all government primary and secondary schools and those subsidised by government.
Menette said although under the policy prevention was stressed, when that fails the school management is tasked to endeavour to manage the situation.
Her presentation generated heated debate, with some MPs present calling for wider and deeper consultation to refine the policy.
Elma Dienda, who once tabled a motion in parliament about female learners not being allowed to go back to school whenever they fell pregnant, said there had been insufficient consultation in developing the policy.
“I fell pregnant when I was in Grade 11, and I couldn’t go back to school. So it was with that background that I tabled that motion in parliament, but when you developed this Policy, you didn’t even consult me,” she said.
Dienda said in addition to being an MP and a mover of the motion, she was a chairperson of a school board for three consecutive terms. At no point, she said, was she invited to participate in discussions related to the development of the policy.
“I was also the alternative chairperson of the Council of Churches in Namibia. I was not invited to participate in these discussions. I belonged to a group which is the church, and the input of the church could have improved this policy. If you had invited chairpersons of school boards, I am sure I would have been invited if you didn’t want to include me as a MP.”
Dienda said it was disturbing that the policy was never presented to parliament for debate before it was adopted. She also took issue with the ages of people who were being asked to teach life skills.
“Some of the teachers teaching life skills are in their 50s. It is not within our culture for teachers to discuss issues of sex with their learners. You can’t pick anybody to be a life skills teacher… We must be very careful on who our life skills teachers are. They can either make it or break it,” she warned.
She said due to poor training of some life-skills teachers, some life-skills lessons had degenerated into “relaxation periods”.
She said some learners were abusing the policy.
“Some of the learners that fall pregnant are coming back to school two days after they have given birth, and they are sleeping most of the time. My view is that immediately after a learner has given birth, we must ask them to rest for at least one month. I want to see this policy also take into consideration the health of the learners that would have just given birth.”
She said breastfeeding was a challenge given that many schools had no breastfeeding corners, leaving some breast-feeding learners to nurse their babies under trees.
Another MP, Reinhold Nauyoma, called for a study to ascertain the academic performance of learners that fall pregnant and are readmitted into formal education.
“Do we have success stories that we are proud of under this policy? Do we have statistics of learners that fell pregnant, came back and did well? Do we know the impact of this situation on other learners at the same school that don’t fall pregnant and are working very hard? In the end, they see their colleague falling pregnant, coming back and conclude that it’s not a big deal.”
Nauyoma wondered how schools were dealing with learners who were falling pregnant repeatedly under the policy.
“I have a problem with a learner who this year is pregnant, gives birth and comes back to the school. Two years later, she falls pregnant again because she is just used to this kind of life where nothing happens.”
Agnes Limbo, also an MP, said when the policy was developed, she thought it was good but what she saw during public
hearings and oversight visits organised under the SADC Parliamentary Forum-led Sexual Reproductive Health Rights, HIV and AIDS Governance Project had changed her views.
“We came across a school in Otjozondjupa …we started looking at the children of these learners. Are they well-taken care of or are they just dumped?”
Her view was that many of the girls that fell pregnant were from poor households.
“When such a mother is forced to go back to school within a week or so of giving birth, she leaves her child with her uneducated mother or grandmother.”
Limbo said she was told that there was an NGO that was paying learners who fall pregnant to go back to school.
“These learner mothers are paid a certain fee. It now becomes like the more you produce, the more you get.”
She said some of the learners who had fallen pregnant were being paid so handsomely that they looked better than their fellow classmates who had not fallen pregnant.
“They were well looked after; they were having nice clothes. The others were saying to us ‘Why should I sit in school when my classmate who has fallen pregnant is getting money?’ It becomes a vicious cycle.”
She said Namibia must stop copying other countries’ policies.
“When we go to international forums, hear that something is happening or is being discussed, before we even think deeper, we come here and start implementing. Many of us sitting here have never been to the rural areas to see if this policy is really welcomed by the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries.”
In response, Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture officials who were present insisted that there had been sufficient consultations over the policy.
Charles Kabajani, who was the acting deputy permanent secretary in the ministry at the time told the parliamentarians that the policy had been developed with the best interest of the girl-child in mind, and had adhered to international best-practices.
He said in developing the policy, the ministry of education had received assistance from the Legal Assistance Centre.
•Moses Magadza is Communications and Advocacy Specialist at SADC PF.