OPINION: Tanzania President Samia Suluhu should allow all pregnant girls back to school

OPINION: Tanzania President Samia Suluhu should allow all pregnant girls back to school

In June 2017, the late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli said students who become pregnant should not be allowed to finish their studies after giving birth, sparking outrage from human rights groups in Tanzania and in the region.

The late, President John Magufuli, reinforced a law that originally passed in 2002 that bars pregnant girls in Tanzania from attending regular school and punishes teachers who don’t honor the ban — a policy that was first introduced in the 1960s. Under the measure, schoolgirls are often subjected to mandatory pregnancy tests and run the risk of being arrested if pregnant.

Teenage pregnancies are on the rise in Tanzania. The 2015-2016 Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey (TDHS) found that 1 in 4 women aged 15 to 19 are mothers. 40% of women of ages 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence, and almost 20 per cent have experienced sexual violence.

This is compounded by the fact that in Tanzania 1 in 5 women have an unmet need for contraception, and 1 million women have unintended pregnancies each year.

Further, most schools often lack comprehensive sexual education, with students reporting that they do not have the information they need to prevent pregnancy. Currently, there is no national sexual education curriculum in mainland Tanzania.

Tanzania implemented a free education policy for high school to ensure all children and adolescents have access to education. However, the policy does not extend to adolescents that become pregnant.

According to World Bank, 60,000 students drop out of secondary school every year in Tanzania; 5,500 of those leave due to pregnancy. While there is no government policy that states that students who become pregnant must be expelled from public schools, most pregnant girls do drop out.

Issuance of lockdowns and other measures globally means that there is an increase in reproductive health injustices such as sexual violence; rape, defilement, and child marriage, as there is an increase in stress levels, poverty, among other reasons.

Adolescent and young people have reportedly been facing several challenges on sexual gender-based violence, access to contraceptives, access to mental health services, unintended pregnancy, and the dilemma of curfew and cessation of movement.

Arresting pregnant schoolgirls and denying them their right to education is cruel, humiliating, and discriminatory. Preventing girls from continuing their education has a significant impact on their personal and academic lives, while adding unnecessary shame. Punishing these girls is not a solution to the problem, human rights are indivisible, inseparable, and universal.

The main causes of teenage pregnancy in Tanzania include sexual exploitation, abuse, poverty, lack of information about sex, sexuality and reproduction, and lack of access to services such as family planning.

Preventing pregnant girls and adolescent mothers from attending school denies them access to education and keeps many trapped in a cycle of poverty. This, in turn, exposes them to violations including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and sexual and labour exploitation.

Children need to be protected against sexual violence in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government and the justice system in Tanzania should continue to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable, help girls transition back into school, avail free access to safe and legal abortion to survivors of sexual violence such as rape and defilement, and teach boys and girls comprehensive sexual education.

The Tanzanian government, even though through a statement by education minister Joyce Ndalichako, announced it is lifting the discriminatory ban on pregnant girls and adolescent mothers attending school, developing a law or a policy to this effect would be sustainable and ensure that they supersede Head of States’ pronouncements, statements or decrees.

The government needs to introduce policies that address the underlying issues that resulted in early pregnancies amongst other issues. Rates of teenage pregnancy and childbirth in Tanzania are only likely to increase if action isn’t taken to help girls overcome their challenges.

The government of Tanzania must focus on the drivers of adolescent and teenage pregnancies which are entirely overlooked in current punitive policies, instead of expelling and arresting school girls. Adolescent and teenage girls in Tanzania need support, not threats, to avoid pregnancy. Tanzania should ban sexual violence, not pregnant adolescents and teenage girls from accessing education or schools.

Just Like Kenya; The ministry of education, ministry of health, and other stakeholders in Tanzania should develop, implement and resource a “Return to School” policy that ensures the development of strategies for the pregnant school girls out of school to be allowed after delivery to go back or be given support to gain admission into another school of her choice she feels there are issues of stigma and discrimination.

The writer, Alvin Mwangi Irungu, is a sexual reproductive health and rights youth advocate in Nairobi, Kenya. @alvinmwangi254