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Feb 26, 2004

Pregnant teachers: Target of discrimination?

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It is a situation that is well known in the teaching profession, yet rarely discussed publicly. But the practice by some church affiliated school management bodies of forcing unwed pregnant teachers to get married or get fired is coming under increasing scrutiny–by both teachers and government.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

The education system of Belize is unique, in that our church-state partnership has Government paying the bulk of teacher salaries and the church managing, and maintaining the institutions.

The arrangement has worked, but when it comes to dealing with a moral issue like pregnant unwed teachers, the church and state part ways. In fact, the professors contend policies are not only non-tolerant, they’re discriminatory and illegal.

Elena Smith, Catholic School Teacher

“They feel that teachers are not to get pregnant and be in the system if they are not married.”

There are no available statistics to indicate just how many unwed teachers have become pregnant, but thirty-five year old Elena Smith says she was put through hell.

Elena Smith, Catholic School Teacher

“Because I was called to the office of the priest at the time, almost every week, wanting to know when would I be getting married. And it was very-for me as a teacher in the classroom and having somebody calling every week and asking you these questions, it was very stressful for me knowing that I am going to have a child, I have a job that I love very much, and then I have people who I thought I can count on and those were the same ones that were trying to give me a hard time.”

Janelle Chanona

“This month, a specific case involving Maria Roches, a teacher from the Toledo District, has brought scrutiny to this sensitive issue. Sensitive because even though the Government said Roches should have her job back, Catholic management refused to let her back into the classroom.”

Francis Fonseca, Minister of Education

“The Catholic management, who are our partners in education, have not reinstated Ms. Roches. And that’s why under the education rules, there is a process where the actions have not been followed, there is a process for further action to appeal to the arbitration panel and then ultimately if necessary to the courts of Belize.”

Janelle Chanona

“So the church said no?”

Francis Fonseca

“Yes, the management as I understand it has refused to accept her back.”

The arbitration panel met on Monday, but their ruling has yet to be made public. According to the Belize National Teachers Union, this so-called “grey area” is as clear as black and white.

Anthony Fuentes, President, Belize National Teachers Union

“I must say abundantly clear that this is a labour issue, we are not attacking the church-state system of education. This is a labour issue, this is a human rights issue, this is a constitutional issue. I would to encourage all those critics out there who are saying that teachers are role models, I agree to that, but we have to stand up as a union and we cannot sit back and let them release our teachers just like that. No, we cannot. As a union, in our mission, we say we have to protect the just cause of all our teachers.”

Protecting all women in the education system is the cause of the Women Issues Network Belize.

Carolyn Reynolds, WIN Belize Coordinator

“What is happening is that there are policies that are written and unwritten, and girls are expelled from school once they become pregnant and teachers are put on disciplinary actions for three to six months, or some of them up to a year.”

“When we say written or unwritten, it’s also because there are double standards. So for some teachers, it’s fine for them to stay on in the classroom, while for some they are put on disciplinary actions.”

But the Catholic Church maintains its stance on the moral high ground. Despite numerous attempts to elicit comment from Bishop O.P. Martin, Auxiliary Bishop Dorick Wright, and Catholic Schools General Manager Clement Wade, none of the officials elected to return our calls. But through it’s publication, The Christian Herald, the church calls on teachers to be a good example, stating, “In this day and age, some people find it convenient to confuse being disciplined with being discriminated against. Children will only become moral beings by having role models setting good examples as they interact with one another. How can teachers tell children one thing and by their very action, witness to the children in morally unaccepted ways.”

In the face of such sentiments, female teachers say they are faced with startling options.

Elena Smith

“More than often teachers would prefer to get married just to keep their jobs. So they have two choices, either not tell them and maybe have an abortion or you go through with it and get married, then you get divorced two three months down the road.”

Minister of Education Francis Fonseca says this case highlights that a clear-cut policy must be established.

Francis Fonseca

“I believe that would be the logical outcome of this matter, making sure we have a very clear understanding and a very clear policy for a way forward on these matters. But I certainly think a court ruling on the matter can certainly lend some light to the issue.”

Janelle Chanona

“That’s not to say that government is afraid to go up against the church?”

Francis Fonseca

“No, we have a partnership that has worked very well and we have to continue working. But we as I have said, are committed to standing and supporting this issue. We will not allow anyone’s rights to be violated.”

Elena Smith

“The bible says that we should not judge other people, we shouldn’t judge. And if I say to you that you should not do it, then I am judging you, who am I to judge? So we want to look at it, not from that standpoint of being moral or unethical, but from the point where the teacher has a right to have a job and the teacher should not be discriminated against because she is a female. What happen to the male teachers who are fathers and are not married? They are not being penalized, they are not being punished.”

According to the Ministry of Education, out of the two hundred and fifty-four primary schools in the country, fifty-four are managed by the government, which pays one hundred percent of employee salaries and benefits. The government assists the remaining one hundred and ninety-eight, called grant aided schools, with two dollars per child, a stipend to general managers and one hundred percent of teacher salaries and benefits. Of the thirty-six secondary schools in the country, thirteen are managed by government while the other twenty-three are grant aided with government paying seventy percent of teacher salaries. Since 1993, government also pays the tuition for every enrolled child with the respective churches meeting all other costs.

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