One in three pregnant girls drop out, but it doesn’t have to be this way

Anele, whose name has been anonymised, got pregnant and eventually dropped out of school to find a job. She left school in Grade 8.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has released new statistics on underage pregnancies, which show a rise in deliveries since 2017.

In Parliament this week, DBE officials announced that one in three girls between 10 and 19 years leave school after becoming pregnant[1]

There was also a noticeable increase in the number of deliveries in 2020 and the first quarter of 2021, attributed to school closures and disrupted access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services due to the Covid-19 lockdowns[2] Young women who are out of school are more at risk of becoming pregnant, and young women who become pregnant are more at risk of leaving school.

Many parenting learners want to return to school but lack the support needed to keep a grip on their education. So, schools, households, neighbourhoods and policymakers have a role to play in determining whether a young mother returns to school or not.

“I feel like pregnancy here is the one thing that causes dropout. This year, almost in every grade, more than one girl is pregnant. They are still here, but they are not going to finish the year. Some say they are going to come back. But most won’t. Is their house situation stable enough? They’ll need to work to make money.”

Zubaidah (17), Grade 12 learner Manenberg, Western Cape

What interventions are showing positive results?

Since 2017, the Zero Dropout Campaign has worked with four NGO implementing partners to roll out dropout prevention strategies in different parts of the country. Through this relationship, the campaign has built a body of knowledge about how to retain learners. The National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW) operates in eight schools in the rural Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, training Child and Youth Care Workers (CYCWs) to support learners with their psychosocial and other needs.

Building supportive and trusting relationships to talk about sex

CYCWs in schools are often seen as trusted confidants that learners can approach about topics they would ordinarily not speak to an adult about, such as sexual relationships. Within a supportive and trusting relationship, the CYCWs are poised to provide learners with information that will allow them to make informed choices.

Early Warning Systems

Because of their proximity to learners, school-based CYCWs can identify learners who may be at risk of becoming pregnant based on their behaviour and attendance records. These learners are then enrolled into structured programmes such as Vhutshilo (Meaning “life”), which is an HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health program. The programme — open to boys and girls — teaches young people how to stay safe from sexually transmitted diseases and become confident adults.

“My mother looks after my daughter while I am at school now. Becoming a mother changed me because before I had a child, I was always in the street visiting friends. But now that I have a child I am always at home and I am focusing on my studies.”

Noluthando* (17), dropped out of school for a year and returned Gonubie, Eastern Cape

*Name changed

Support systems for pregnant learners

CYCWs regularly check in with pregnant learners to make sure they are attending classes and clinic appointments. CYCWs play a crucial role in bridging the communication gap between schools and households by letting teachers know whenever learners are absent because of clinic appointments or medical reasons.

CYCWs also conduct home visits or connect with learners virtually to provide support and to share schoolwork that the learner may have missed. These home visits continue after the learner gives birth to help the young mother balance her new maternal responsibilities with her schoolwork.

Aside from individual sessions, CYCWs form Buddy Beat groups for young mothers where they discuss a range of topics including sexual and reproductive health and breastfeeding. These are crucial support systems for young mothers who want to stay in school after giving birth.