Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting at School in Contemporary South African Contexts: Deconstructing School Narratives and Understanding Policy Implementation1

By Shefer, Tamara; Bhana, Deevia et al. | Perspectives in Education, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting at School in Contemporary South African Contexts: Deconstructing School Narratives and Understanding Policy Implementation1


Shefer, Tamara, Bhana, Deevia, Morrell, Robert, Perspectives in Education


Introduction

Pregnancy and parenting among school-going learners is not uncommon in South Africa. Nearly a third of women have children before they reach the age of 20 (NRC-IOM 2005; Vundule, Maforah, Jewkes & Jordan, 2001). Since education is compulsory until the age of 16, and many learners continue to attend school until they are 20 and beyond, pregnancy and parenting is apparent at many South African schools. In 2007, for example, nearly 50.000 learners became pregnant while at school, with high rates in poorer provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo (Department of Basic Education, 2010). While the Constitution and current educational policy ensure that pregnant and parenting learners may continue schooling, the context of teenage pregnancy is shaped by a wide range of discourses relating to teenage sexuality, pregnancy and motherhood (Luttrell, 2003; Macleod, 2011). As evident in a recent article in a national newspaper, entitled 'Pregnancy Tsunami' (The Times, 21 February 2011), teenage pregnancy is an emotive issue in South Africa, constructed in the popular media as well as in much of the scientific literature as essentially problematic, "disastrous" and "damaging", not only for the young women, but also for broader society (Macleod, 2001, 2011). At the core of this popular representation of teenage pregnancy is a range of normative assumptions about what young people should or should not do with respect to sexuality and reproduction, infused by dominant moral, cultural and ideological positions on pregnancy, parenting and families. In a rigorous account of scientific and public discourse, Macleod (2011) unpacks the way in which such responses are framed in a discourse of 'degeneration' in which the pregnant teenager is viewed as a threat to the social order, both symptom and cause of social problems. Macleod (2011: 5) argues that the "[p]ublic discussions of 'teenage pregnancy' and abortion, for the most part, construct a threat of degeneration, in which young women are positioned as contributing, through their sexual and reproductive status, to social decline".

As a result of the dominant discourses on adolescence, and moralistic positions on young female sexuality, in particular, the position of young parents as learners in schools remains highly contested. A number of recent local studies at schools and with pregnant and parenting learners highlight how the translation of the legal measures supporting pregnant and parenting learners is mediated by the context of the school and the broader community, including the views of principals, teachers and community members (Bhana, Clowes, Morrell & Shefer, 2008; Bhana, Morrell, Shefer & Ngabaza, 2010; Ngabaza, 2011; Nkani & Bhana, 2010). These studies illustrate that there are supportive and nurturant teachers and principals, yet they also highlight a continued resistance and discomfort with pregnant and parenting learners that extends to peers.

In 1996, the South African Schools Act (No 84) was an important moment in translating the broader constitutional commitment to gender equality into the schooling environment. Prior to the Act, it had been fairly legal (and common) for pregnant learners to be expelled. The Act (9(2) (b)) now limited the grounds on which expulsion was permissible to the commission of an act of "serious misconduct". It also terminated the power of a school principal or governing body to expel a learner unilaterally. However, loopholes in the Act were identified almost immediately. The Gender Equity Task Team (GETT), established to examine the state of gender in South African education, called for special attention to pregnant learners and young mothers at school, recommending that the Department of Education "facilitate the schooling of pregnant adolescents and young mothers, and provide affordable and accessible childcare facilities" (Wolpe, Quinlan & Martinez, 1997: 230). However, until the publication of Measures for the prevention and management of learner pregnancy (Department of Education, 2007), schools were left to interpret the law and put it into practice. …

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