Opening school doors to pregnant adolescents and adolescent mothers: What is needed to best support their education? (2021)

Mar 1st 2022

Authors: Janina Jochim and Ilana Zelmanovitz Axelrod

“Take them [adolescent mothers] to Robben Island or any other island, sit there, study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.” (Jacob Zuma, Former President of South Africa) 

For the second time, the International Day of Education unfolds against the backdrop of the COVID-19 educational crisis. Globally, school life has been turned upside down for at least 168 million pupils whose schools were closed for almost an entire year during the pandemic. Vulnerable learners and their families were hit the hardest by school closures as many rely on school meals, and low-income households are unlikely equipped with the technology conducive to successful distant learning. Many of these children will never return to school.

Adolescent girls were disproportionately affected by national lockdowns and school closures: Without a safe school environment, unsupervised spare time, and reduced sexual and reproductive health education and services, an increase in unintended adolescent pregnancies was anticipated. Discriminating or lacking laws and policies for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers across Africa limited the school re-entry for up to a million girls. Pre-existing vulnerabilities to school non-enrollment for adolescent mothers were also exacerbated by COVID-19 as access to childcare services was reduced and girls spent an increased amount on household chores and domestic work.    

As countries finalize their plans to counteract the potential damage to learners, it is important not to forget adolescent mothers! This year, the International Day of Education is launched under the banner “Changing Course, Transforming Education“. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to  re-think what type of transformations are needed to shape well-designed programs for young parents to fulfill their educational goals. Here, we will take stock of the emerging evidence from The Accelerate Hub and consider their implications for shaping programs and policies for this group. 

Motivated, but it is not easy. 

Schools constitute potential entry points to reach and deliver services to pregnant adolescents and young mothers: The HEY BABY study showed that most girls were enrolled in school before and during the pregnancy, and 70% returned to school after birth. Existing school-based programs should be extended to provide targeted support that facilitates the safety of pregnant adolescents and adolescent mothers and ensures that all mothers receive assistance to complete their education. Great holistic initiatives already exist, for instance in Argentina where ‘Maternity Rooms’ provide expecting learners and young parents with targeted services, parental guidance, and emotional support whilst they follow the curriculum. 

At the same time, the pre-and post-pregnancy period remains a time when schools lose many girls. Young mother Kananelo (19) from Botshabelo township said: The people see pregnant girls and they talk, like a lot. I don’t like that – so I stay at home1. We need to find ways of changing the status of adolescent mothers and stop their judgment. This requires the commitment of those in power of communities to stop perpetuating cycles of disempowerment. Identifying discriminatory gender norms, and where they operate, is key to ensuring that they do not stifle any progress towards transforming schooling for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. 

Knowing the laws and policies.           
Some communities retain ‘local’ policies that perpetuate gender unequal approaches and discriminate against pregnant learners. Adolescent mothers Letsoba (23) summarises these injustices: “Even at school, they must tell both of us that we must stay at home because it’s our child. But they don’t tell the boys. The boys can go to school. That’s not fair”1. Schools often believe that allowing expecting learners and adolescent mothers in school increases pregnancy rates – even though it does not

Our research called for increased flexibility in South Africa’s national policy to allow even ‘early returning’ mothers back in school. As South Africa’s new learner policy is kickstarted in 2022, it is essential to ensure that girls know of their right to education and the policies that protect them. However, researchers, policymakers, and educators also need to keep asking if their work is able to re-shape educational systems that tackle inequalities at their roots. Only a transformative system can ensure that school policies flourish in an environment that wants to see adolescent mothers succeed.    

No daycare access, no return to school. 

Adolescent mothers cannot go back to school if nobody looks after their child. Providing parents with affordable childcare options is key to encouraging school return and breaking gendered cycles of poverty – as maternal education likely has implications for child development and potential.2  Our research3 showed that receiving familiar childcare support doubled the odds for adolescent mothers to return to school, but using formal daycare services made a school return four times more likely. In addition, the Hub generated novel accelerator analyses4 showing that access to daycare centers might not only increase mothers’ school enrolment but also enables them to parent well. Gabon, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia have already developed initiatives to build childcare centers close to schools or are host to NGO initiatives that support temporary residence, education, and vocational training for adolescent mothers and their children. Governments have the power to orchestrate efforts to increase childcare access, for instance through daycare subsidies. National social protection programs should also consider cash-plus programs with the potential to increase father involvement in order to address the gendered nature of childcare and ease the burden for adolescent mothers.  

Evidence towards gender-transformative education 

Like many other girls, expecting adolescents and adolescent mothers are challenged to complete their education only because of their gender. Gender transformative education aims to tackle these inequalities by changing all parts of the education system at its roots. This requires deliberate strategies and programs that dismantle unequal gender roles and power dynamics, both in schools and in communities. When designing programes to challenge inequalities, Unicef’s new report on gender- transformative education recommends:

  • Principals, teachers, and educators need to receive training to promote gender equality and must be made aware of their own gender biases. Curricula should be free from gendered materials, and schools should be dedicated to challenge inequalities in the classroom. 
  • Provide girls with the skills and confidence to challenge inequalities and advocate for their rights. Establish links and conversations between parents and communities with girl-groups and women’s grassroots organizations, and facilitate strategic partnerships between different institutions that can drive change.   
  • Leaders, at all levels, need to be held accountable for gender-transformative progress. Their plans should be driven by evidence-based approaches and their policies, agendas, and budgets should be tied together by a strong commitment to gender equality.

We are still losing the talent of too many young mothers who are forced out of school. As African countries continue to abandon restrictive laws and practices that limit pregnant girls and adolescent mothers’ educational progression, it is essential to fully leverage and build on the research that can help this group to reach their full potential. Implementation plans need to ensure that measures of ‘progress’ go beyond the assessment of enrolment rates, and researchers should ask girls what limits their attendance, performance, and school completion. Adolescent mothers remain institutionally marginalized and it is important to consider their needs in a wide range of support systems. For instance, integrating adolescent mothers into food assistance programs could not only increase their school enrolment but also reduce their risk for HIV-infection5. Likewise, poor mental health has been found to be elevated among adolescent mothers compared to non-mothers. Given this, existing mental health support may require tailoring to meet the specific needs of adolescent mothers6. More documentation and evaluation of the programs and support sources that already benefit adolescent mothers in South Africa and elsewhere are needed to help understand what works and what does not work. The evidence will tell us what is needed to offer access to multiple, flexible pathways to education for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers who want to continue to learn but experience obstacles. 

1 Moodley (2021). Hidden realities: Lived experiences with teenage pregnancy, motherhood and HIV in Botshabelo, South Africa. DPhil Thesis, University of Oxford.    

2 Roberts et al. (2022). Adolescent mothers and their children affected by HIV – an exploration of maternal mental health, and child cognitive development. Under review at PLOS ONE. 

3 Who goes back to school after birth? Factors associated with postpartum school return among adolescent mothers in the Eastern Cape, South Africa (2022). Forthcoming in Global Public Health.
4 Cluver, Jochim, Toska et al. (2022). Analyses in progress.
5 Cluver, Rudgard, et al. (2022). Food security reduces multiple HIV infection risks for adolescent mothers and non-mothers in South Africa: A cross-sectional study. Under review at the Journal of the International AIDS Society.  

6 Roberts et al. (2022). Adolescent motherhood and HIV in South Africa: Examining prevalence of common mental disorders. AIDS and Behaviour, 1-14.