Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – Tanzania this week announced the lifting of a controversial ban banning pregnant girls from returning to school, a move after years of sustained pressure from activists urging the government to drop what they called discriminatory policy.
Education Minister Joyce Ndalichako on Wednesday said the government would remove all barriers to reintegration for students wishing to return to school after dropping out, including due to pregnancy.
“Now is the right time,” Leonard Akwilapo, the ministry’s permanent secretary, told Al Jazeera. “There was a lot of talk about it and the company seemed ready to lift this ban. Social media has been inundated with discussions on this issue with many people who want a change ”.
Teachers say the 1960s policy was vigorously implemented under the previous administration of the late President John Magufuli, who died in March this year and was replaced by Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania‘s first woman president.
Magufuli once said 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, goes back to school. No, not under my mandate, ”he said in 2017.
As her statements often became official policy, this position led to more forced pregnancy tests and the deportation of girls found pregnant. Researchers and activists have also faced hostility from government officials and their supporters.
“Activists have paid a huge price for fighting for this change,” said Mshabha Mshabha, coordinator of Change Tanzania, which has long campaigned against this policy.
“Those of us on the front lines were seen as having a personal political agenda against the late President John Magufuli. That we propagate foreign values and encourage prostitution among children in schools. It seems that the authorities have realized that we are only fighting for the right of girls to education.
In February 2020, Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition ACT Wazalendo party, received death threats from lawmakers after leading a coalition of activists who wrote to the World Bank to suspend a loan to the government over the ” discriminatory policy ”to keep pregnant girls away from schools.
“Invest more in sex education”
The most critical next step now is to focus on prevention efforts, said Neema Mgendi, founder and CEO of Okoa New Generation, an organization that builds the capacity of girls who have dropped out of school due to an illness. pregnancy.
“Most girls who get pregnant in schools lack basic sex education,” Mgendi said. “While we welcome this development, the most important step now is to invest more in sex education and to sensitize students to the impact of teenage pregnancies and child marriage and to encourage them to stay in school. “
The World Bank said last year that more than 5,000 pregnant girls in Tanzania were banned from continuing their education each year, as well as returning to school after childbirth.
Supporters of the ban had argued that allowing pregnant girls to continue their education would promote “promiscuity” among students and lead to more girls becoming pregnant. Although there is no supporting evidence, studies have shown that a lack of sex education and poverty could both strongly influence the likelihood of girls getting pregnant as teenagers in Tanzania.
‘Right to education’
Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report cited girls who got pregnant in school as saying the men were exploiting their financial needs. They reported that men, often motorcycle taxi drivers, offered to buy them essentials or take them to school in exchange for sex.
School officials and teachers have often used the country’s education law and its 2002 expulsion from education regulations to expel girls. The regulations allow expulsion when a student has committed an offense “against good morals” or if a student has married.
In its July and August research, HRW found that some girls were expelled just before taking their national qualifying exams in Grade 4, the last year of junior high school, after schools conducted compulsory pregnancy tests. shortly before or in the middle of these exams.
Tanzania is now one of the last two African countries to lift the ban on access to education for pregnant schoolgirls. Only Equatorial Guinea still maintains this policy after Sierra Leone also reversed it last year.
Elin Martinez, senior researcher in HRW’s children’s rights division, said years of studies in many African countries have shown that simply removing a policy that denies girls the right to education just wasn’t enough.
“A policy or legal framework must be in place so that girls who have been actively refused and who have been told that they cannot return to school due to pregnancy or motherhood can claim their rights. right to education, ”Martinez said.
“Having a framework that specifically states their right to education and clarifies what school officials and Ministry of Education officials must do locally and at all levels to ensure this is extremely important. “