A coalition of human rights groups has condemned as unconstitutional the Tanzanian president’s comments that pregnant girls should be banned from school.
President John Magufuli was widely criticised by campaigners after he told a rally last week: “As long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school … After getting pregnant, you are done.”
A law dating back to the 1960s allows all state schools in Tanzania to ban young mothers from attending. Over the past decade, more than 55 000 Tanzanian pregnant schoolgirls have been expelled from school, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Women’s groups said the ban is out of touch with public opinion and breaks international human rights conventions. It also contradicts a promise set out in the ruling party’s 2015 election manifesto, which pledged to allow pregnant school girls to continue with their studies.
Faiza Jama Mohamed, director of Equality Now’s Africa office, said campaigners will not stop in their fight against the ban. “We have to ensure girls are going to school. It’s a right. Even if it means we have to lodge a case in the courts to declare it unconstitutional, that’s a route that we’re considering.”
Speaking in Chalinze town, Magufuli said that girls would be too distracted to concentrate on their studies if they had a child, and their presence would be a bad influence on other girls.
“After calculating some few mathematics, she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom ‘Let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby,’” he said.
Following his comments, the hashtag #StopMagufuli trended for days, while an online petition opposing the ban and calling for better sex education attracted almost 2 500 signatures.
Equality Now, an international human rights organisation, is supporting a coalition of 29 local campaign groups that gathered in Dar es Salaam on Thursday to voice their concern about the ban. In a statement released before the meeting, the coalition said it was “speaking out to defend the country’s young girls”, calling on the government to listen.
The statement reiterated that Tanzanian children were guaranteed the right to an education by the constitution and legislation. “The rights and protections offered to children, including the right to education, therefore must be available to all those under this age, regardless of parental status. The law is unequivocal on this issue,” the statement said.
Failing to educate young women would further entrench poverty, the group warned.
The group pointed to neighbouring countries that have successfully introduced re-entry policies for young mothers. “In Zanzibar, since 2010 girls have been allowed back into school after giving birth as a strategy for reducing the number of dropouts. In these countries that offer girls the option to return to school, there is absolutely no evidence of an increase in student pregnancies as a result of young mothers being in school,” it said.
About 21% of Tanzanian girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth, according to the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics. Women’s campaigners say high numbers of girls become pregnant as a result of rape, sexual violence and coercion.
Instead of blaming girls, the state should tackle the causes of teenage pregnancies, said Jama Mohamed. “They need to deal with sexual violence in schools, and with what happens to girls in between schools and home.”
There is also a need to improve the quality of reproductive and health education for both boys and girls, she said. “Mostly the reproductive health issues are not clear to students and nobody even tells them what will happen if they have sex, for example,” she added.
Equality Now is also calling for better access to post-rape healthcare services, including those necessary to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
This story was originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project
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