Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – Tanzania announced this week the lifting of a controversial ban prohibiting pregnant girls from returning to school, a decision that came after years of sustained pressure from activists urging the government to abandon what they termed a discriminatory policy.
On Wednesday, Education Minister Joyce Ndalichako said the government would remove all barriers to re-entry for students wanting to return to school after dropping out, including due to pregnancy.
“It’s the right time,” Leonard Akwilapo, the ministry’s permanent secretary, told Al Jazeera. “There was a lot of discussion about this and society seemed to be ready to lift this ban. Social media have been awash with discussions about this issue with many people wanting change”.
Teachers say the 1960s policy was vigorously implemented during the previous administration of late President John Magufuli, who died in March this year and was succeeded by Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania’s first female president.
Magufuli had 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, returns to school. No, not under my mandate,” he said in 2017.
As his statements often became official policy, this stance led to more forced pregnancy testing and expulsion for girls found pregnant. Researchers and campaigners also faced hostility from government officials and supporters.
“Activists have paid a huge price fighting for this change,” said Mshabaha Mshabaha, coordinator of the Change Tanzania group, who long campaigned against the policy.
“Those of us on the front line were viewed as having personal political agenda against the late President John Magufuli. That we were propagating for foreign values, and encouraging prostitution among children in schools. It appears authorities have come to realise that we were only fighting for girls’ rights to education.”
In February 2020, Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition ACT Wazalendo party, received death threats from members of parliament after he led a coalition of activists who wrote to the World Bank to withhold a loan to the government over the “discriminatory policy” of keeping pregnant girls away from schools.
The most critical next step now is focusing on prevention efforts, said Neema Mgendi, founder and CEO of Okoa New Generation, an organisation building capacity for girls who dropped out of school because of pregnancy.
“Most of the girls who get pregnant in schools lack basic sexual education,” said Mgendi. “As we commend this development, the most important step now is to invest more in sexual education and increase awareness among students about the impact of teen pregnancies and child marriages and encourage them to remain in schools.”
The World Bank said last year more than 5,000 pregnant girls in Tanzania were barred annually from continuing with their studies, as well as from going back to school after giving birth.
Supporters of the ban had argued that allowing pregnant girls to continue with school would promote “promiscuity” among students and lead to more girls getting pregnant. While there is no evidence to support this, studies have found lack of sexual education and poverty could both strongly influence girls’ likelihood of falling pregnant as teenagers in Tanzania.
Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report cited girls who got pregnant while in school as saying that men exploited their financial needs. They reported that men, often motorcycle taxi drivers, offered to buy them essential goods or give rides to school in exchange for sex.
School officials and teachers often used the country’s Education Act and its education expulsion regulations of 2002 to expel girls. The regulations permit expulsion when a student has committed an offence “against morality” or if a student has entered into wedlock.
In its July and August research, HRW found some girls were expelled just before they sat for their national qualifying exams in Form 4, the last year of lower secondary school, after schools conducted mandatory pregnancy tests shortly before or in the middle of these exams.
Tanzania has now become one of the last two countries in Africa to lift the ban against pregnant schoolgirls from accessing education. Only Equatorial Guinea still maintains the policy after Sierra Leone also reversed it last year.
Elin Martinez, senior researcher in HRW’s children’s rights division, said years of studies across many African countries have shown that simply removing a policy that denies girls the right to education was simply not enough.
“A policy or a legal framework must be in place so that girls who have been actively denied and told that they could not go back to school because of pregnancy or motherhood to be able to claim their right to education,” Martinez said.
“Having a framework that specifically stipulates their right to education and clarifies what school officials and ministry of education officials locally and at all levels need to do to guarantee that is extremely important.”