Unlike Europe where most universities have formal structures to support pregnant students, South African universities are yet to implement such structures. Even then, supervisors at Wits have still found ways in which to assist pregnant students.

Mahnaaz Abdulla, 22, a marketing honours student at Wits was unable to continue as a full-time student after she fell pregnant.

Although she managed to complete all her courses in the first semester last year, she gave birth in June and was unable to sit for her mid-term exams. “My research and exams had to be carried on to this year,” said Abdulla.

However, she says Wits showed tremendous support and “assisted me by letting me switch to part-time.”

Professor Alex van den Heever, Chair of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at Wits says countries like Sweden have structures in place to support pregnant students so they can finish their education and believes a similar system would work well in South Africa.

[pullquote align=”right”]“It is extremely difficult as a new mother to make that choice and to have an infrastructure that will allow such a return.”[/pullquote]

Alex van den Heever, who has done research on income protection for pregnant women, says there are ways to structurally shape education institutions for pregnant students and mothers such as building crèche facilities on campus.

Van den Heever’s research looks at extending social grants to pregnant women above the age of 18 years. “Students who are pregnant are not supported in education easily,” van den Heever says. He added that increasing the age at which grants are given would stabilise the economy since it would enable pregnant students complete their studies instead of dropping out.

In Abdulla’s case, Basie Jordaan, the honours co-ordinator in her department, helped by sorting the paperwork quickly. “Basie used to email me all the time so that I was in touch with my research,” Abdulla says.

Pregnant students encouraged to finish

The Registrar for Health Sciences, Sandra Benn, encourages students who fall pregnant to come back and complete their degrees. Students often grapple with the difficult decision to either have an abortion or keep the baby, she says.

“It is extremely difficult as a new mother to make that choice and to have an infrastructure that will allow such a return. Either way a student is encouraged to finish,” Benn says.Marike Bosman, Registrar of Management and Law, says it is hard to distinguish when students de-register from their degrees as a result of pregnancy. “They will either say it is a wrong choice of study or for personal reasons. We will not know why they really cancelled.”

Professor Alex van den Heever carries out research in extending social grants to pregnant women above 18 years old. Image: Wits Vuvuzela.

The Student Advisor for the Faculty of Health Sciences, Reverie Kuschke says “a student who is pregnant is referred to the Office of Student Support (OSS) for assistance. Each situation is treated individually and the student is permitted to take a ‘leave of absence’ (LOA) rather than de-register.”

In the case of a shorter LOA, the time period would be negotiated between the assistant Dean of Student Support, the relevant department and the student.

There are various counselling facilities on campus that offer support to students who are struggling with personal issues. Toinette Bradley, head of therapy in the Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU) says the therapy they give helps to empower the student not instruct them. “We do not give advice, as this is not what therapy is about.”

Bradley says the counselling involves exploring how the student feels, helps them support their decision and allows them to use the therapeutic space.

Fortunately, Abdulla has the support of her husband and family. “In the evening he sits with her [the baby] for about an hour and a half so that I may get homework and studying done,” Abdulla told Wits Vuvuzela.

Although she is married, Abdulla admits that her pregnancy was not planned. She now looks forward to completing her degree and spending time with her family.