“As long as I am president…no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…After getting pregnant, you are done.”
So said Tanzania’s President, John Magufuli in June. Last week, the International Women’s Health Coalition was one of 20 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Global Campaign for Education, that called on the Government of Tanzania to rescind its harmful ban on pregnant adolescent girls in school and end its attacks on civil society organizations. Civil society organizations have been fighting bans like these around the globe for years; they violate girls’ human right to education and stand in the way of development. These efforts are particularly necessary in Tanzania, which has one of the world’s highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates: one in six girls between 15 and 19 becoming pregnant. The country also has one of the highest child marriage rates, with 37 percent of girls marrying before age 18.
President Magufuli’s shocking statement has renewed efforts to end the ban, which has been in place since the 1960s. But the government is trying to clamp down on civil society organizations voicing dissent. The Tanzanian Home Affairs Minister threatened to deregister organizations that call for lifting the ban, as well as groups working for the rights of LGBT people.
Attacks on the rights of women and girls and the work of civil society often go hand-in-hand and are the hallmarks of regressive regimes. The President’s statements are a stark reminder that even leaders who should be working to ensure the rights and development of all citizens can allow harmful ideologies to dictate policy. The ban ignores the fact that education for girls can be one of the best ways to prevent child marriage and adolescent pregnancy and empower generations to lift themselves out of poverty. A recent report by the World Bank estimates the economic cost of child marriage to be in the trillions. His inflammatory comments perpetuate stigma around teenage pregnancy and do nothing to prevent it.
President Magufuli’s assertion that adolescent pregnancy is the result of promiscuity on the part of girls ignores evidence that 90 percent of adolescent pregnancies around the world occur within marriage and that adolescent girls often have little control over their own lives. This lack of autonomy, combined with little or no access to education, information, or sexual and reproductive health care, often leads directly to adolescent pregnancy.
As the late Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, former Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), stated so clearly a few years ago, “adolescent pregnancy should not be seen only as the result of recklessness or a deliberate choice but rather that of an absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control.”
Tanzania’s policy is also inherently gender discriminatory, as only girls are kept out of school for being pregnant. It is also more harmful to girls who live in poverty, as pregnant girls whose parents can pay for a private education would be allowed to continue learning if the private institution allows it. The policy will not only be damaging to individual girls but to whole communities and the country overall; policies like this are an impediment to Tanzania achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 4 on education and Goal 5 on gender equality.
President Magufuli is further entrenching gender inequality. His policies prohibit girls from accessing education and health services like contraception that would help them prevent pregnancy. Instead of punishing girls for pregnancy, President Magufuli should be concentrating on ensuring that all Tanzanians benefit from programs that are proven to reduce adolescent pregnancy, such as comprehensive sexuality education and high-quality sexual and reproductive health care.
These interventions are called for in multiple UN resolutions and reports that take into account best practice and the most up-to-date research. The US Government’s Let Girls Learn initiative aims to address the barriers that prevent girls from getting an education and is investing specifically in Tanzania. The Keeping Girls in School Act, introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) earlier this year, aims to ensure that girls around the world can go to secondary school and prioritizes ending child marriage and pregnancy in US foreign policy. If passed, it would put pressure on governments like Tanzania to end harmful and discriminatory policies and practices. In Tanzania, where less than 20 percent of women graduate from secondary school, and where the President himself is against girls’ education, passage of this bill cannot come soon enough.
Photo: World Bank / Sarah Farhat