At a recent public rally, Tanzanian President John Magufuli made the damaging statement that girls who become pregnant should not be allowed to return to school. This kind of gender discriminatory policy not only ignores widespread sexual violence against adolescent girls but also contributes to a vicious cycle of poverty.
Equality Now’s Program Manager for our End Sexual Violence and Justice for Girls programs, Christa Stewart, responded to President Magufuli’s dangerous remarks in this op-ed, most recently published on Pambazuka News. Read below...
President Magufuli, ban sexual violence, not teenage mothers from school
By punishing pregnant girls and denying them their education, the government is penalizing them on the basis of gender and is curtailing their futures so they are likely to remain trapped in a cycle of poverty. Around one in four females in Tanzania is illiterate.
Tanzania’s President John Magufuli is facing widespread criticism from human rights organizations following comments he made last Thursday at a public rally that girls who become pregnant should not be allowed to return to school.
President Magufuli was quoted as saying:
"In my administration, as long as I am president ... no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. We cannot allow this immoral behaviour to permeate our primary and secondary schools ... never.”
"After calculating some few mathematics she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom ‘let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby’... After getting pregnant, you are done!”
“If we were to allow the girls back to school, one day we would find all girls in Standard One going home to nurse their babies.”
These worrying statements were backed up this week by Tanzania’s Home Affairs Minister, Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, who warned civil society organisations advocating for teenage mothers’ education that they would be deregistered if they continued campaigning on this issue.
Tanzania's ban on pregnant girls attending state primary and secondary schools dates back to 1961, and according to a 2013 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), more than 55,000 schoolgirls have been expelled from school over the last decade for being pregnant.
Although some more affluent families have been able to pay for their daughters to attend private school, the majority of girls have had to miss out on the rest of their education.
Civil society organizations including Equality Now argue that denying girls who have become mothers access to education is a violation of their human rights, and is a form of discrimination as highlighted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in their recent report: Realization of the equal enjoyment of the right to education by every girl.
The right to education plays a pivotal role in development, both of the individual and society. It opens up access to information on protection, opportunities and other fundamental rights, and is highly linked to personal, social and economic empowerment.
Barring teenage mothers from education not only perpetuates discriminatory gender norms, but is also an indication of government failures to address the root cause of widespread sexual violence against adolescent girls.
Efforts to eradicate violence against girls and women in Tanzania need to be increased, and laws against perpetrators of sexual violence have to be better enforced. More needs to be done also to alleviate the stigma and discrimination endured by pregnant girls and survivors of sexual violence and exploitation.
Girls’ human rights to health, life and right to equality and non-discrimination must be guaranteed by providing them with quality education, and to sexual and reproductive health care information, services and goods.
The Tanzanian government and President John Magufuli should ensure that all school settings across the country are free from sexual violence and that holistic programming is in place to prevent and address sexual violence as outlined in the Global Guidance to Address School Related Gender Based Violence.
Education is key to eliminating poverty and denial of education is counter to any proposals aiming to improve society. Around one in four females in Tanzania are illiterate and the country’s illiteracy rate rose by one per cent to reach 23 per cent in 2015. By only punishing pregnant girls and denying them their education, the government is penalizing them on the basis of gender and is curtailing their futures so they are likely to remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Providing access to childcare for girls who become mothers should be a state priority, as should the provision of other vital support services so that they can return to school. Of particular urgency is guaranteeing girls’ right to access post-rape healthcare information and services including those necessary to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as ante-natal care.
President Magufuli’s comments go against the Tanzanian government's own policy and contradict the 2015 General Election campaign pledge of the ruling political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi. They are also directly at odds with the commitments that Tanzania has already made by signing up to various regional and international pieces of legislation. These include the Maputo Protocol, which guarantees the rights of women and girls in Africa including their rights to education and training, and the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which clearly states that girls who get pregnant should be given an opportunity to access education.
People wanting to join the conversation on social media can use the hashtags #ArudiShule and #StopMagufuli, which are trending since last week. Many are urging President Magufuli to withdraw his damaging statements, lift the ban on teenage mothers accessing schools, and take all necessary steps to ensure the wellbeing and future prospects of all girls across Tanzania.