A proposal that pregnant South African schoolgirls be allowed "maternity leave" has sparked heated debate in the country amid fears// that this could encourage teen pregnancies.
South Africa is under pressure to deal with the high number of teenagers who drop out of school and fail to continue their education once they become mothers. It is one of only a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that allows pregnant girls to return to school after they give birth.
It is estimated that around 72,000 girls countrywide between the ages of 13 and 19 years stop attending school as a result of pregnancy each year. In at least one of the country's nine provinces, the number of girls who become pregnant while still at school has been seen to be increasing.
In 2004, 632 schoolgirls became pregnant at schools in the KwaZulu Natal province, compared to 887 this year, according to a survey that noted most were aged 15 or 16 years.
The idea of a "maternity leave" of about four months for pregnant schoolgirls was first mooted at a summit this month of education authorities, welfare agencies and teachers' unions in KwaZulu Natal.
The summit was called to discuss the teen pregnancy problem and formulate guidelines on dealing with pregnancies in schools.
There has since also been talk of special classes for pregnant girls where nurses could give lessons on baby care and other issues for mothers.
While some teachers' unions and some child welfare groups seem comfortable with the proposal, several political parties and a large number of ordinary South Africans seem appalled by the idea.
The National Teachers Union noted that parents were responsible for their children and that teachers did not have the necessary skills to deal with the issue of pregnancy.
Union spokesman Elium Biyela was quoted as saying that young girls in schools should not be treated differently from any other preg
nant women in South Africa - working mothers are entitled to four months maternity leave.
Radio talk shows have taken on the issues surrounding the proposal with callers divided on the best way to proceed. Many said they did not see the need for pregnant girls to be given special treatment for what was essentially their own problem.
One caller to a radio station suggested a "draconian" approach of forcing all schoolgirls as young as 12, perhaps, to submit medical report cards as proof that they use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.
The non-profit child welfare group Childline has come out in support of "maternity leave" but has warned that pupils might view the prospect of four months off school as an incentive to fall pregnant.
The KwaZulu Natal survey meanwhile showed in the province of high unemployment rates some girls from disadvantaged communities were contributing to the income of their families by accessing the national child support grant of 190 rands (25 dollars) per month.
The theory linking teen pregnancies to state support has been around for some time, as South Africa's attempt to explain the ongoing high number of teenagers having babies -- despite the legalization of abortion in the late 1990s.
It is widely believed, however, that teen pregnancies in South Africa, a country with more than 5.5 million people infected with HIV/AIDS, are mostly due to irresponsible sexual behaviour.
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