Collective Course Our Children

Two Gilr from the Free State recently endured the humiliation of being temporarily expelled from school for being pregnant.

The decision sparked one of the fiercest school turf wars pitting the two high schools, Welkom and Harmony, against the provincial Education Department and human rights lobby groups.

The matter will only be resolved next month when the Constitutional Court hears the case.

Now organisations including the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Section27 and the Centre for Child Law hope they will no longer have to go to the courts to protect pupils from what they see as draconian school laws denying them the right to education because they fell pregnant.

They hope that schools and the government will adhere to the newly launched charter that seeks to safeguard the rights of children to quality education.

The charter’s name is self-explanatory about its objectives: Charter of Children’s Basic Education Rights.

The charter gives a detailed list of the government’s legal obligations to ensuring that all pupils have access to quality education, leaving no room for excuses when schools do not toe the line and flout the rules, as seen in the Welkom and Harmony schools court battle.

“The (Welkom and Harmony pregnancy) policies are clearly unfair as they discriminate against the girls on the basis of gender because only girls are barred from school while the boys (who impregnated the girls) are not,” said Dr Ann Skelton, a director at the Centre of Child Law.

The organisation is representing the two girls as amicus curiae (a friend of the court).

“We are hoping the court will actually go beyond the issue of who has the power to make policies and look at fairness,” added Skelton, referring to the two schools’ policies on pregnancy.

SAHRC commissioner Lindiwe Mokate cautioned of dire consequences if the pregnant pupils were to continue being excluded from school for being pregnant.

“Pregnancy is rife at school and we may end up losing a lot of children. In 2010, it was estimated that 100 000 children got pregnant,” she said.

She was quick to state, though, that their stance was “by no means encouraging pregnancy”.

The charter also means that the government will need to tread carefully if it plans to implement its policy to conduct HIV/Aids testing for schoolchildren.

“We think it’s good getting tested and knowing your status and that needs to be encouraged. But when it comes to young people, we should be careful not to make conditions worse for them,” Mokate said.

“First, if the child is tested, there is a possibility of other children knowing his or her status. If there isn’t an environment that is accepting of people (with) HIV/Aids, then there is a possibility of negative consequences for that child.

“Chief… is discrimination, and that does not only come from peers, but at times from educators themselves.”

The negative consequences for insensitive HIV/Aids testing in schools could also spill into the infected and affected children’s home environment.

“There are still many families that do not accept that their children are HIV positive. For some of them, it’s because they are afraid of the stigma. You have heard of people saying: ‘This child has brought us shame.’ So we should be concerned about what happens after the testing.”

The charter’s clauses on HIV/Aids and pregnancy are clear about protecting pupils from discrimination.

“All children… affected by HIV/Aids and girls who become pregnant while teenagers are enrolled, attend and complete their primary and secondary schooling cycles,” it reads, in part.

Most importantly, the charter also seeks to protect children from physical and sexual abuse, including by their teachers.

It recommends the screening of all teachers to determine if their names are recorded in the National Child Protection Register or National Register for Sex Offenders, as required by law.

The launch of the charter means that the Department of Basic Education will want to avoid more costly court battles if it continues paying lip service to its minimum standards in schools for, among others, classrooms, electricity, water, sanitation, electronic connectivity, and library and sports facilities.

The department recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Equal Education, requiring it to set these minimum standards.

More importantly, the charter lists performance indicators to monitor if the government is delivering on its responsibilities.

So imagine a country where all pupils learn in smaller, manageable and air-conditioned classrooms, and all pupils enjoy the benefit of doing research and experiments in well-stocked libraries, science and computer laboratories.

Or enjoying internet connectivity that is not frequently offline.

This may seem ambitious for a country like South Africa, plagued by issues such as mud school buildings and pit toilets, not to mention an acute shortage of teachers.

The magnitude of the task is perhaps underlined by the fact that only the UK and Ireland have adopted the children’s basic education charter.

But this school environment ideal that enables quality education may become a reality if the SAHRC, in particular, becomes more vigilant in compelling the government to fulfil its constitutional responsibility by implementing the charter.

“The charter takes this brilliant constitution the country has and makes it a tangible activity that people can look at and be able to say their right to education has been realised,” Mokate said.

Notably, the charter lists the respective provincial and national departments tasked with the provision of the requisite resources and other responsibilities.

In some instances, the tasks come with staggered deadlines that have to be met.