Thousands of girls in mainland Tanzania have been denied their right to education due to a law that prohibits them from attending school if they are found to be pregnant.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) — which released a report last week on the impact of the policy and is calling on the government to abolish the law — girls are subjected to compulsory pregnancy tests at school that ultimately determine whether or not they are allowed to continue their education.
The country’s discriminatory education policy calls for students to be expelled when they have “committed an offence against morality” or if they have “entered into wedlock.” While the law does not state outright that pregnancy within school is prohibited, this is a presumed interpretation of what it means to commit an offence against morality. The law has been in place since June 2017, and was heavily endorsed by then president, John Magufuli.
“As long as I’m president, no pregnant students will be allowed to return to school,” he said at the time. “The warranty to go to school be it secondary or primary is forbidden.”
For its report, HRW interviewed 30 girls who were expelled from school as a result of this regulation. The girls interviewed recall being forced to take pregnancy tests, and being barred from accessing school. The organisation is calling on Tanzania to end the ban on pregnant girls at schools, and to eradicate all discriminatory practices carried out by local government and school officials that specifically target school-aged girls.
“Tanzania’s girls are suffering because the government insists on an arbitrary policy that is ending their education, humiliating and isolating them, and destroying their futures,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should urgently end this inhumane policy and allow pregnant students and mothers back in school.”
While there is no regulation that encourages compulsory pregnancy testing at schools and health care facilities, government officials have outwardly endorsed the idea and education officials have freely applied it. In response, HRW has called forced pregnancy testing a huge infringement on a girls’ rights to privacy, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy.
The reasoning behind prohibiting expectant teenage mothers from attending school has been reported by HRW as officials not wanting other school children to be influenced into participating in sexual relations at an early age.
One girl interviewed by HRW also explained that she was not allowed to attend school even after having her child.
“My mom tried to beg [school officials] whether I could return to school after I have given birth,” she said. “But they told her no, I couldn’t go back to school. They said they can’t have a mother in the classroom, and that I’ll be a bad influence on other students.”
A majority of the girls who were found to be pregnant had been sexually assaulted or exploited. According to HRW, men in the region often take advantage of girls in financial difficulty, offering them basic necessities, rides to school, or money to get to school in exchange for sex.
Despite high teenage pregnancy rates in Tanzania — with an estimated 360,000 girls between the ages of 15 to 19 giving birth each year — sex and reproductive education is lacking in schools across the country. A report conducted by HRW in 2017 found that girls and women only have access to essential sexual health information after they’ve fallen pregnant or given birth. Access to contraception is also lacking in the region, with 57% of women and girls in the same age group not having adequate access to contraception.
A number of girls interviewed by HRW had been expelled from school just before achieving important education milestones, such as completing their lower secondary education, or finishing their qualifying examinations. One girl tells HRW that she was just two exams shy of completing her Form 4 exams, which is the equivalent of completing Grade 10.
“I was supposed to be kicked out of school even though I was left with only two exams,” she said. “I really don’t know what they were thinking […] They didn’t even want to hear me out. They just kicked me out of school.”
In 2020, the country announced investments into education alternatives for pregnant girls and young mothers, with a plan to dedicate $180 million from a World Bank loan into alternative access to education. Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Leonard Akwilapo, announced earlier this year that 54 alternative education centres will be open to receiving pregnant girls, though it is not clear whether the qualifications received through these institutions will be exactly equivalent to those achieved through traditional schooling.
The World Bank has been criticised by activists and organisations for funding this plan and playing a role in prolonging discrimination against pregnant girls.
These alternative education centers have presented separate barriers to education for girls as, even though Tanzania has a fee-free policy towards public education, the alternative institutions require high enrollment fees and are often further away than local public schools, meaning girls have to travel long distances to access them.
Enrollment for these facilities is set to be open for expectant mothers in January 2022.