BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Rosemary Chando’s pace is slow as she labors up the steps to get to her applied chemistry class.
Eight months pregnant, she is a second-year student at the National University of Science and Technology, NUST.
“I wish I could go for maternity break, but I can’t,” she says.
“I have to make sure I at least finish the courses for this semester,” she says, adding that she needs to keep pace with her peers.
If she takes leave without completing her second-semester courses, she will have to repeat them in the coming year, when others will be beginning their industrial attachment, the next phase of the degree program.
“I want to graduate with the rest of my class,” she says. “So I will have to struggle on.”
But staying on track with her studies isn’t the only challenge for a pregnant college student – the cost of antenatal care is prohibitive, she says.
“My family is assisting me with antenatal care, as I cannot afford to pay for medical aid by myself,” she says.
Now, a group of university students is lobbying for an antenatal package to help pregnant students balance studies and health.
Historically, Zimbabwe’s social policies have not supported women’s education, experts here say. During the early years of Zimbabwean independence, students who became pregnant were often withdrawn from their courses and were only allowed to rejoin after giving birth and weaning their babies.
University students have a right to procreate as much as they have a right to education, says Richard Rugare, a former lecturer at a local university.
“Institutions have to evolve and create antenatal support for students,” he says.
A 1999 statute still grants college authorities the right to remove, temporarily or permanently, any student whose physical health makes it “undesirable” for them to continue their studies. That could apply to pregnant or lactating women.
But there is growing support at NUST for pregnant women, says Lesley Maniwa, minister of student affairs in the Students Representative Committee.
“A specific antenatal package is of paramount importance, and as a student body we are lobbying for that,” he says.
The university has no health policy for pregnant students.
“I can confirm that at NUST we do not have an antenatal care package for students,” says Felix Moyo, the university’s director of information and public relations. “We often deal with pregnant and nursing students on a case-by-case situation.”
Without help from the school, pregnant students have to rely on assistance from their families or go without antenatal care.
“When my daughter fell pregnant while at university, I had to provide emotional and financial support for her antenatal classes,” says Stella Gomo, whose daughter is a university student. “Universities should provide such packages, especially for students whose parents cannot afford antenatal care and for students whose parents are in another town or city.”
The conversation about healthcare for pregnant students on campus is a step in the right direction, says Perseverance Sibindi, a NUST student with a 6-month-old baby.
She says she was lucky to have delivered her baby while the university was on a break, but she had to be ready for examinations three weeks after the birth. Like Chando, she was concerned about falling behind her classmates and having to repeat courses, which is expensive.
“Universities should have antenatal packages for university students, especially for financial security,” says Sibindi. “Because one will be stressing about paying her college fees and preparing for the baby, which is also financially stressful.”
No decision has been made at NUST on whether to offer a provision for antenatal care.