The Education Amendment Act which came into force on the 6th of March 2020 was received with mixed feelings by different sectors whose work relate to education. While law analysts postulate varying arguments on the positive changes and likely adverse impacts to the overall education sector, some programme implementers within the sector celebrate its enactment. The Amendment Act addresses new health themes previously silent in the 1987 Education Act which can be viewed as a progressive step towards developing a wholesome student/pupil within the sector. It is however also worth noting that there are few critical areas where the Act could have articulated more elaborately concerns of parents, educationists, policy makers and programme implementers.
Section 64 of the Education Act focused on health in schools. The health concerns spelt out in the section include; physical examination of premises to ensure there were no health risks, dental and medical examination of students/pupils within any education facilities such as hostels, exclusion from school a student or pupil who has a communicable disease, is found verminous or has no proof of vaccination against known diseases as provided by the parents or guardians. While these considerations were carefully made, there was an omission which has been addressed by the Amendment Act relating to the growing evidence on sexual and reproductive health challenges experienced by the students. The Amendment act adds a paragraph after which is numbered k and speaks of the appointment of a sexual and reproductive health personnel. This step has been acknowledged as a progressive first step towards addressing some of the well-known sexual and reproductive health challenges experienced by the students and pupils such as HIV Incidence, Sexual and Gender Based Violence, Unplanned teen pregnancies, and STI incidence.
Contrary emotion to the celebration of the appointment of a personnel dedicated to the sexual and reproductive health matters of students is a reference to the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The Constitution of Zimbabwe as amended in 2013 included a new paragraph in section 76 which included the right to reproductive health services among other health services. In spite of the existence of such legislation there are still challenges to access such services resulting from factors such as inadequate financing for service delivery, poor enforcement of laws, policies and guidelines, compromised service delivery by health personnel, and lack of harmonisation of laws. With these same experiences with the supreme law of the land, the big question to be answered is whether the new paragraph in the Education Amendment Act will be enough to succeed against opposing factors such as culture, gender norms, stereotypes, and disproportionate service delivery. One would be challenged to see this as a new day for the students and young people or just an old tune with new lyrics.
The Amendment Act has an amendment on section 69 (n4) and a new section inserted which is 68A (2) (a) (ii), both which speak to abuse in several forms which are sexual, physical, psychological or inhumane treatment. The 2 sections indicated above bring a new perspective of a deliberate attempt to address abuse within the education space. Among the known challenges faced by the students/pupils were concerns related to abuse by fellow students/pupils, teachers, non-teaching staff and in some cases members of the surrounding communities. Although it might not be very clear how the cases beyond being identified, will be addressed, the recognition that such cases do occur within the education setting is a milestone for the students and young people. Protection mechanisms can then be put in place by the schools not as a reaction to growing cases reported but systematic mitigating measure against abuse of any form. The amendment Act in light of this understanding can be viewed as advancing the best interest of learners both academically and outside the classroom.
Though previously ignored, the Amendment Act brings to light 2 key development themes of disability and pregnancy. A new section 68B was introduced to articulate key areas of focus for the schools as they provide for their students with disability. 68C which is yet again a new section focuses on non-exclusion of students from school on the basis of non-payment of fees or pregnancy. While these 2 sections do not deal with the root causes of these realities for students such as stigma and discrimination, harmful cultural and religious norms, stereotyping, they provide a foundation for other pieces of legislation to build on to ensure that the young people within schools are not excluded from schools on the basis of the reasons cited above and others.
In general observation, it can be noted that the Education Amendment Act has a clear inclination towards addressing challenges faced by the students/pupils based not only on standard practice but premised on the evidence from population based surveys and lived realities of the students and young people. The Act amended sections to include issues of importance for the students and introduced new sections relating to silent components such as disability, abuse, pregnancy as well as sexual and reproductive health. Educationists, programme implementers, and policy makers alike should understand the Education Amendment Act as a foundation for setting up ideal systems contributing to the wholesome development of students and young people.