Tanzania’s first female president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has put a stop to the country’s decades-long policy of tossing pregnant girls out of school and banning their return.
Former president John P. Magufuli doubled down on the rule in 2017, resulting in reports of school officials conducting pregnancy tests to root out pregnant students. But years of campaigning by human rights organizations, along with a leadership change, paid off in a mighty victory for the girls of this East African nation when President Hassan announced in November 2021 that the ban would be lifted.
Tanzania’s new initiative to ensure that all children can receive a proper education is a substantial turnaround after a long history of missteps.
The history: Educational roots give way to policy hypocrisy
Tanzania’s history is rooted in education as a core value. After gaining independence from Britain in 1961, Julius Nyerere—also called Mwalimu, a Swahili word meaning “teacher”—was swiftly established as the first prime minister and later president. He envisioned Tanzania as self-reliant, with little dependence on foreign interference for advancement. Education would be the catalyst he’d use to liberate his people from poverty and suffering. But in a staunchly patriarchal society, one portion of the population faced chronic obstacles that often left them excluded from those dreams.
Tanzania instituted the National Education Act of 1978 through Nyerere’s push for nationwide education. Although it includes a non-discrimination clause and does not explicitly state pregnancy as valid grounds for expulsion, it grants powers to the Minister of Education to develop policies he or she “sees fit” to implement.
Nearly 25 years after its creation, Tanzania amended the Education Act in 2002 to allow for expulsion if a student gets married or commits an “offense against morality.” The added clause opened the door for ministry and school officials to interpret pregnancy outside of wedlock as a moral offense, and with 36% of Tanzanian girls married off by 14 years old—one of the highest rates of teen marriage in the world—young girls were an easy mark for discrimination.
Poverty is a major driver of child marriage throughout Tanzania. Families with limited income struggle to provide basic necessities for their children. The bride price parents receive for their daughter’s marriage provides quick relief. But the damaging long-term effects simply perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty: marrying young, dropping out of school, having children, and then pressuring their children to do the same.
As concern grew over the rising number of child brides and teen pregnancies, Tanzania enacted the Right of the Child Act in 2009, stipulating a child’s right to attend school, regardless of gender or circumstance. Despite this, expulsions continued at record pace. The Right to Education estimates that over 8,000 adolescent girls drop out of school or are expelled for pregnancy annually.
Rights groups called out Tanzania’s policy hypocrisy as a direct violation of its education laws and multiple African Union charter agreements they consented to uphold. The United Nations agreed that Tanzania’s existing so-called protections for girls were inadequate and demanded that further measures be enacted.
The Magufuli breakdown
But in 2017, former president Magufuli publicly endorsed prohibiting young mothers from attending school, stating, “In my administration, as long as I am president . . . no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. We cannot allow this immoral behavior to permeate our primary and secondary schools.” His contentious statements prompted several women’s rights and social justice groups to take action, filing lawsuits against Tanzania for promoting inhumane practices. A petition to end the ban was started on Change.org that soared to over 100,000 signatures.
In 2019, Tanzania’s Minister of Education announced that pregnant school girls could continue their education, but not through the traditional school system. The World Bank awarded Tanzania a $500 million loan to build these alternative schools under the Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program (SEQUIP). While The World Bank and Tanzania’s leaders attempted to market these alternative centers as a reasonable substitute for young mothers eager to head back to school, admittance came with tuition that was unaffordable for a population where over a quarter of people make less than $22 a month.
Activists refused to let the subpar solution stand, and Tanzanian citizens and advocates kept the conversation going even as Magufuli’s regime tightened its grip on media outlets. Hashtags like #ChangeTanzania, #StopMagufuli and the Swahili #ArudiShuleni (“back to school”) and #ElimuBilaUbaguzi (“education without discrimination”) started trending on Twitter.
Many people agreed the real problem wasn’t a moral failing of Tanzanian girls, but the Tanzanian government’s gross negligence to protect its most vulnerable.
Outside of marriage, sexual violence against adolescent girls in Tanzania is disturbingly frequent. In a 2013 report from Reproductive Rights, girls most often reported rape by either a family friend, teacher or stranger on the way to school as the reason for pregnancy, not self-initiated sexual activity. Girls rarely report these encounters out of fear of retaliation.
Coercion is another major factor. Tanzania’s public school system is technically free, but the fees associated with attending, such as uniform costs, books, and meals, add up quickly. Knowing that many families can’t afford to pay, men prey on girls walking to school, offering to cover their fees in exchange for sex. Since Tanzania doesn’t have adequate sexual education, girls commonly succumb to these schemes, unaware of the potential consequences.
By law, men who impregnate school girls face a 30-year jail sentence. But this is seldom enforced. Instead, claims of rape or coercion are rarely investigated or prosecuted.
Back to school and looking forward
Expelling pregnant students has long been a haphazard policy across the African continent for decades. But even compared to its peers, Tanzania has been a laggard: out of 54 African countries, it was 53rd to end the legal expulsion of pregnant girls from school, after Sierra Leone in 2020 but before Equatorial Guinea, which remains a holdout.
Ushering young mothers back to school is just the first step. More needs to be done to ensure their safety and dignity, in line with the at least 30 African Union countries that now have policies in place to protect pregnant women and girls’ right to education. Family disownment, social stigma, and a lack of affordable childcare make returning an immense challenge. But access to mental health and childcare support has been shown to help alleviate the burden, allowing the mother to finish school with a sense of peace.
Groups like The Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights Africa are asking the Tanzanian government to create policies that ensure the returning girls are being treated fairly. “We look forward to the issuance of the guidelines with an accountability framework in place,” the organization wrote in a December 2021 press release, “to ensure that no more pregnant girls and young mothers are shamed, stigmatized, and are not allowed to continue their education.”
In the meantime, private endeavors are striving to fill the gap. The Young Strong Mothers Foundation offers support for young mothers to help them navigate the difficulties of cultural stigma. And medical organizations like Marie Stopes Tanzania are dedicated to educating the youth on sexual health awareness and safe pregnancy prevention methods.