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Early and unintended pregnancy: impact on educational opportunities for adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

An adolescent girl's formal education is usually over the moment she becomes a mother, limiting her opportunities for a lifetime. A recent study by the Population Council finds that in sub-Saharan Africa, gaps and inconsistencies in education policies violate a pregnant adolescent's right to education.

"Nearly all adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa who have ever been pregnant are out of school," said Harriet Birungi, Population Council country director in Kenya. "We wanted to understand how the education sector is responding to this situation and how the response can be improved to get teen mothers back into school."


From August to October 2014, Population Council researchers reviewed published literature and policy documents from the Ministries of Health and Education in Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. They also conducted in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with school administrators, teachers, students, and parents. The researchers found gaps in policy, confusion about policy, and lack of knowledge about policy that combine to keep pregnant girls and teen mothers out of school.

Preventing early and unintended pregnancy

None of the countries examined in this study offer truly comprehensive sexuality education.

For example, information about pregnancy prevention is rarely included in curriculums. Sexuality education in Botswana, Malawi, and Uganda includes information on proper use of condoms, and life-skills education in Zambia and Uganda includes information on contraceptives (in the latter, in Islamic religious curriculum only). In places where information on pregnancy prevention is taught, it is only covered in secondary school. However, few students make it to secondary school, so many adolescents do not receive this information.

Furthermore, schools and health services are not officially linked in any of the countries, despite recognition that such a connection might help reduce early and unintended pregnancy. Researchers did find evidence that this link is happening informally; for example, in Uganda, schools located near health facilities have established informal relationships.

Responding to early and unintended pregnancy

When girls do get pregnant, education-sector policies in sub-Saharan Africa often do not facilitate their continuation or reentry in school. The study's authors describe three different school-system responses to pregnant learners:

* Expulsion: Immediate removal of pregnant learners from the school system with no prospect of returning.

* Reentry: Compulsory leave of absence before a student may reenter school, often a different school.

* Continuation: Pregnant learners may remain in school for as long as they would like, with no compulsory leave after giving birth.

Though researchers hoped to see continuation policies in place universally, this was not the case. All countries examined had reentry policies, either officially (in Botswana, Kenya, and Zambia) or in draft form (in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda). In many countries, there are conflicting messages. For example, in Kenya there are guidelines that imply that pregnant learners should be sent home, as well as policies that state that such learners should be allowed to remain in school for as long as possible.

Researchers found that though some countries have policies to accommodate the needs of pregnant students, most of these policies are not implemented, possibly due to lack of awareness at the school level. None of the countries, except Zambia, has a mechanism to keep track of girls who leave school due to pregnancy in order to assist them in reentering. Knowledge about the reentry process is limited among school administrators, teachers, students, and parents.


To address these gaps, reduce the occurrence of unintended pregnancy, and ensure that girls who do get pregnant are able to return to school with ease, the authors recommend that:

* Guidance documents outlining appropriate education-sector responses to early and unintended pregnancy should be developed so that they can be adapted by Ministries of Education.

* These guidance documents should be shared with education, health sector, and community stakeholders to raise awareness of appropriate responses and responsibilities. Life-skills and sexuality and HIV curriculums should be expanded to include information on pregnancy prevention, and should be taught as early as upper-primary levels.

* Regional bodies created to promote collaboration in education and health should convene workshops to support connections between Ministries of Education and Ministries of Health, and also between schools and health services.

* Policymakers should identify programs that successfully enable school reentry and expand these programs across the region.

"Because so many of the national policies are currently in draft form," said Chi-Chi Undie, a Population Council researcher in Nairobi, "it is critical that we offer suggestions and support so that countries adopt policies that are effective and ethical."


Birungi, Harriet, Chi-Chi Undie, Ian MacKenzie, Anne Katahoire, Francis Obare, Patricia Machawira. 2015. "Education sector response to early and unintended pregnancy: A review of country experiences in sub-Saharan Africa." STEP UP and UNESCO Research Report. Nairobi: Population Council.

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Publication:Population Briefs
Geographic Code:60SUB
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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