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Support groups, advocates call for pregnant teens to be allowed to continue education

A space created by NPO Kids' Door where high school dropouts can study is seen in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on July 9, 2017. The space also offers support for young women with children. (Mainichi)

Is it really all right for high school students who become pregnant to be forced to drop out? Support groups are beginning to shine a spotlight on Japanese social norms that lead to poverty and limited access to education for teen mothers.

    Many students who become pregnant are treated as voluntarily dropping out by their high schools, but the actual situation is well understood by neither the national nor municipal governments. Experts say that there is a high possibility that students who have been forced out of school will struggle to make ends meet, leading to their children growing up in poverty, and therefore they are calling for change.

    Last spring, NPO heads Chieko Akaishi of Single Mothers Forum, Yumiko Watanabe of children's education-focused Kids' Door, and Hiroki Komazaki of Florence, involved in childcare services and other projects, created the "national child poverty initiative," an NPO which aims to make policy recommendations about the issue to the government. They noticed during a discussion that they all had the same awareness of a single problem, summarized by Akaishi:

    "It's been the case for a long time that if a high school student gets pregnant, she has to drop out of school, but there is a large pay gap between junior high and high school graduates. What if there was a way to support them so they don't drop out and can become self-reliant?"

    While some students who leave high school after becoming pregnant dream of a new lifestyle and caring for their child with their partner, the reality is grim. The divorce rate for couples married in their late teens is the highest of any age group, and if the student becomes a single mother, she faces even more hurdles to making a living. Even the exam equivalent to graduating from high school costs money. Times have changed, and there are few job opportunities for junior high school graduates. Most teen mothers must rely on social welfare from the government, and it is not rare for these forced dropouts to have no other choice but to work in the sex industry.

    However, many high schools strongly object to the notion of a pregnant girl continuing to go to school. Kaoru Samejima, the executive head of the Anshin Haha to Ko (Safe mother and child), a nationwide group of hospital obstetricians and gynecologists, highlights the case of a pregnant student who told her homeroom teacher that she wished to continue her schooling. Her teacher replied, "You will be a bad influence on the other students. I won't tell anyone, so please voluntarily drop out of school."

    "It's strange that these girls can only continue if they have a secret abortion, and if they choose to give birth, then they must give up their education," laments Samejima.

    Akiko Suzuki, chief of the poverty support organization Inclusion Net Kanagawa, says she can't forget the words of one particular high school student: "Maybe if I had found other dreams to chase, I wouldn't have had a child now."

    The girl was told by her parents that she had to be independent at age 18 as they had no money to send her to university, and that she could not depend on them after dropping out of high school.

    "When your opportunities are limited by poverty and you don't have any goals, it's natural to gravitate toward wanting to make a 'family,'" says Suzuki. "There needs to be support that makes girls want to try to graduate from high school for the sake of their children. The government needs to grasp the situation, and suggest examples of arrangements the schools should make for the girls, such as policies concerning clothing and absences. And if the student is truly serious about dropping out, then the government should offer lifestyle consultation and support for acquiring certifications for the students."

    According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the high school dropout rate for the 2015 academic year was 1.4 percent, or roughly 49,000 students. However, as the ministry does not list "pregnancy" as a reason for dropping out, it is impossible to know how many of those students left school for that reason. However, the 2016 Vital Statistics of Population report found that the number of mothers in their teens had grown to 11,095.

    There are no rules stipulating that a girl must drop out of school if she is pregnant. The education ministry takes the position that if the girl wishes to continue in school, that she should receive necessary attention for her education while putting her maternal health first. However, it was discovered in 2015 that a public high school in Iwate Prefecture had made pregnancy grounds for expulsion. The attitude that pregnancy is "problem behavior" is still deeply ingrained in schools.

    A 53-year-old school nurse in Mie Prefecture says that a parent once applied for their daughter to drop out of school because they "wanted to shield their daughter from prying eyes," to which the teacher suggested the student transfer to a school that would allow her to continue her education via correspondence. But, she says, "There is still an attitude as a society that pregnant girls should not continue their schooling."

    "Students and parents are not aware that that even if they are pressured, they can refuse to drop out," says lawyer Toshimasa Yamashita, an expert on children's rights. "We need to understand as a society that the right to education is guaranteed to everyone equally."

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