Years of campaigns and activism have finally paid off as Tanzania ended the oppressive and discriminatory policy of barring pregnant schoolgirls and adolescent mothers from continuing with their formal education, despite the fact that many are victims of rape, defilement, and coercion.
While welcoming the announcement by the minister for Education, Prof Joyce Ndalichako, Fulgence Massawe, Director of Advocacy and Reforms at the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), asked the government to put in place the necessary legal and policy framework to actualise the action.
“While this verbal announcement by the minister for Education demonstrates political goodwill towards ending systemic exclusion and discrimination of schoolgirls within Tanzania’s school system, it must be backed by written policy or guidelines, if not the law. In practice, this means public schools in Tanzania must stop expelling pregnant girls and start admitting adolescents.”
Elin Martinez, a senior researcher in the Human Rights Watch (HRW) children’s rights division, said that removing a policy is not enough. “A policy or a legal framework must be in place so that girls who have been actively denied and told that they could not go back to school because of pregnancy or motherhood are able to claim their right to education,” she explained.
In November 2021, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) convened to hear a case filed by the Centre for Reproductive Rights and LHRC on behalf of six girls who had been expelled from school for being pregnant.
The case challenged multiple human rights and gender equality violations against schoolgirls, including mandatory pregnancy testing, expulsion of pregnant girls, denial of an education post-childbirth, illegal detention of pregnant girls, and lack of access to reproductive and sexual health information and services in schools. The organisations are seeking to have policies in place to protect the rights of girls. The verdict is expected in 2022.
In November 2020, international women’s rights organisation Equality Now announced that, together with its partner in Tanzania, it had filed a joint case at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights against the government of Tanzania, seeking to overturn the country’s discriminatory policy of permanently expelling pregnant girls from school and banning adolescent mothers from returning to the classroom after giving birth.
“Preventing pregnant girls and adolescent mothers from attending public school denies them access to education and keeps many trapped in a cycle of poverty, exposing them to additional human rights violations including child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and sexual and labour exploitation,” the organisation said in a statement after the case had been filed in the court, which is based in Arusha, Tanzania.
Tanzania’s policy of expelling pregnant girls from primary and secondary school dates back to 1961, but the discriminative practice has escalated during the past few years because of public endorsement by senior government officials, especially former president John Magufuli, who died in March 2021. He was once famously quoted saying his government would not educate mothers.
“I give money for a student to study for free. And then, she gets pregnant, gives birth and after that, returns to school. No, not under my mandate,” Magufuli was quoted as saying in 2017.
The pronouncement led to forced pregnancy testing in schools and expulsion of girls found pregnant.
According to Tanzania’s Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, in 2012, some 2,433 girls dropped out of primary school and 4,705 from secondary school due to pregnancy. The World Bank said in 2020 that more than 5,000 pregnant girls in Tanzania were barred every year from continuing with their studies.
Tanzania has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. The United Nations Population Fund states that one in four girls aged 15 to 19 in the country is either pregnant or has given birth, and the proportion has increased from 23 per cent in 2010 to 27 per cent in 2015, according to Tanzanian government data.
Mshabaha Mshabaha, the coordinator of the Change Tanzania group, is among the activists who have been campaigning against the policy. He said many of them had paid a high price for their activism as the previous administration under Magufuli saw this as a direct and personal attack. The activists were accused of propagating foreign values and encouraging prostitution among school children.
Activists say lack of basic sex education has contributed to the high cases of pregnancy among the girls. Neema Mgendi, founder and executive director of Okoa New Generation, an organisation that is trying to build the capacity of girls who dropped out of school because of pregnancy, emphasised the need for sex education in schools.
“As we commend this development, the most important step now is to invest more in sexual education and increase awareness among students about the impact of teen pregnancies and child marriages, and encourage them to remain in school.”
The supporters of the ban argue that the affected girls would promote promiscuity among the other students and increase the number of pregnant girls in schools. This, according to research, is not accurate as poverty and lack of sexual education are the highest influence.
Human Rights Watch, in a 2021 report, said men exploited girls’ financial needs. The girls who got pregnant reported that men, often motorcycle taxi drivers, offered to buy them essential goods or give them rides to school in exchange for sex.
The lifting of the ban came at an opportune time as the world was marking 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an initiative that seeks to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. The campaign kicked off on November 25 and ended on December 10.