Human Rights Groups In Tanzania Fighting To Help Pregnant Teen Girls Complete Their Education

It’s incredibly depressing to read about such denigration of teen girls happening in 2017. Yes, we are well aware that gender inequality and discrimination is rampant in a number of places across the globe (even in areas known to be developed or progressive, like the US), but when we hear statements like the one from the mouth of Tanzanian president John Magufuli, it is a slap-in-the-face reminder we have a long way to go to ensuring human rights for all.

In July, the president made a shocking statement at a political rally which angered many: “As long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school … After getting pregnant, you are done…We cannot allow this immoral behavior to permeate our primary and secondary schools.”

Not only does this break international human rights conventions, of which Tanzania is a signatory, it also goes against the platform of the current ruling party which stated in their 2015 election manifesto they would allow pregnant teens to finish school. This is important to note, because a law from the 1960’s states that public schools should expel pregnant students.

A coalition of human rights groups, led by Equality Now, an international organization fighting sexual violence and trafficking, are banding together to condemn the president’s egregious words and are also considering taking legal action to ensure teen mothers are able to complete their education.

The coalition said it was “speaking out to defend the country’s young girls”, calling on the government to listen.

“The rights and protections offered to children, including the right to education, therefore must be available to all those under this age, regardless of parental status. The law is unequivocal on this issue,” said the group.

Let’s be clear, this is a systemic form of reproductive shaming and dehumanizing, from the highest level of leadership in the country, no less. The impact of forcing girls to leave school due to pregnancy is grave. It means they may never gain a complete education, find it hard to get employment, and drive them into poverty.

A 2013 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights called Forced Out: Mandatory Pregnancy Testing and the Expulsion of Pregnant Students in Tanzanian Schools found that over the past decade, the archaic Tanzanian law has led to more than 55,000 pregnant students expelled or forced to drop out of school.

In the report, the Center uncovered that these practices are being used by school officials to shame and scare adolescents in an effort to prevent premarital sex and pregnancy. However, schools fail to provide reproductive health education or services that could arm students with the information they need to prevent pregnancy. Not surprisingly, contraceptive use among adolescent girls in Tanzania remains minimal: only 10.7% of sexually active women aged 15-19 report using any birth control method.

“Adolescents…should be able to access the tools they need to make informed choices about their reproductive health. By denying adolescents access to contraceptives and reproductive health education, schools are forcing pregnant girls into early childrearing at the expense of their education and other life goals,” said Dr. Clement Julius Mashamba, advocate and the third Vice President of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

High rates of sexual assault and forced early marriage are also factors leading to teen pregnancy, which remain unaddressed by the government. Under current law, girls can legally be married off at age 14 with parental consent, and marry without parental consent at 15. For boys, it is age 18. It is baffling that there is even a difference between the two!

The government requires mandatory pregnancy testing of school girls, instead of arming them with healthy tools and information about their bodies and sexual reproduction. This creates a ripple effect of stigma throughout communities, where girls who do become pregnant are shunned even by family members for something they may have had no prior knowledge about.

In response to President Magufuli’s shameful statement, the #StopMagufuli hashtag trended on Twitter, and an online petition imploring him to allow pregnant girls to finish their education was launched.

“The Government of Tanzania needs to formulate a legal framework that would allow teenage mothers to resume schooling after giving birth however such a statement from the President propagates more discrimination without reconsidering that these girls (students ) need more sexual reproductive health education to be able to protect themselves from early pregnancies while in school,” it stated.

President Magufuli believes if pregnant girls are allowed to finish school, they may encourage others to have sex. And he also said this: “After calculating some few mathematics, she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom ‘Let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby’.”

The young women affected by this outdated law share different (and far more realistic) outcomes to shaming and stigmatizing pregnant teens. Irene Masawe, 21, fell pregnant 3 years ago and was kicked out of her school in Dar es Salaam.

“Some girls with simple minds might be forced to have risky abortions to avoid shame – or even think about committing suicide,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When it comes to sex education, social and cultural attitudes need a major update. Studies show that the more comprehensive sex education a young person receives, the less likely they are to get an STD, experience pregnancy, and may even delay sexual activity for later. It is in the teaching of “abstinence-only” curriculum, which are often religious-based as opposed to medically-accurate, where you will find higher rates of STDs and teen pregnancy.

We know this because the studies we are talking about come from the US, yet it is a universal concept. The coalition of human rights groups in Tanzania are looking to neighboring nations such as Zanzibar which has had some success in helping teen mothers finish their schooling.

“In Zanzibar, since 2010 girls have been allowed back into school after giving birth as a strategy for reducing the number of dropouts. In these countries that offer girls the option to return to school, there is absolutely no evidence of an increase in student pregnancies as a result of young mothers being in school,” they said.

Yet roughly 21% of Tanzanian girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth, according to the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics. That is  one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world. Equality Now is campaigning to have better resources about STDs and sexual healthcare services available in schools to address some of the social issues that lead to the high rates of teen pregnancies.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation Africa Region (IPPFAR) released a statement in support of pregnant girls finishing school, saying they the president’s comment and that the government should instead be focusing on how to empower young women to stay healthy. They also alluded to the way they can become a powerful resource in the greater economy of Africa.

“When a girl is not enrolled, or is pulled out of school for any reason whatsoever, her rights are violated, her opportunities are lost and her future options are limited…We firmly believe that Africa can harness the Demographic Dividend through investing in youth, particularly young girls if their rights are preserved,” it said.

We will be keeping an eye on this issue in the hope that the Tanzanian law will be overturned, and there is an improvement in the way pregnant teens are treated.

 

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