DAR ES SALAAM, Dec 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Emily Nyoni was enjoying studying at Bunju secondary school in Dar es Salaam and hoped to pursue medical studies to become a doctor until she found out she was pregnant and was expelled.
Nyoni, then 17, is just one of thousands of girls thrown out of school annually in Tanzania after falling pregnant in line with government regulations from 2002 that state pregnant girls have committed an “offence against morality”.
But this could soon change with authorities agreeing to draw up a new policy to make it clear that girls can go back to school after giving birth and ramp up action against men responsible for under-age pregnancies.
For while there is a widespread belief in schools and among education officials that mandatory pregnancy tests and the expulsion of pregnant girls is required by law, women’s rights campaigners argue neither practice is mandated.
The government’s bid to change schools’ attitudes towards pregnant students comes following pressure from campaigners to ensure that teenage pregnancy is no longer a major obstacle to girls’ access to education in Tanzania.
Nyoni, the mother of a two-year-old son who was expelled in 2012, said she found out she was pregnant during a mandatory test at school.
“My teacher called me in front of the class and said this stupid girl has ashamed us,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying she would jump at the chance to go back to school to resume her studies.
“When my father heard the news he was very angry, and threatened to chase me away from home.”
Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, with one in every six girls aged between 15 and 19 getting pregnant, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
FOCUS ON EDUCATION
Mandatory pregnancy testing in schools and the expulsion of pregnant students from primary and secondary school are not new practices in Tanzania with research indicating this has been going on for over 50 years.
Critics, however, say that school authorities have framed such practices in a bid to control adolescent girls’ sexuality rather than equipping them with necessary tools to make informed decision about when and how to have sex.
But in recent years there has been more debate about whether or not teenage mothers should be allowed back to school.
A study by HakiElimu, a local educational NGO, found in 2003 that most Tanzanian educators were of the views that if teenage mothers were allowed back to school, they would set a bad example to other students.
Campaigners said this attitude appeared to be changing with greater recognition of the importance of educating girls and the need to take action against men caught having sex with under-age girls.
Under Tanzania’s Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, having sex with a minor is rape and if convicted an offender could face up to 30 years imprisonment.
Editha Assey, a lawyer and women’s rights activist at Iringa based Ruaha University, said it was not always the girls’ fault when they became pregnant as some were raped yet they were always treated as the ones at fault.
The proposed policy under discussion would require a girl to disclose the man responsible for her pregnancy and also present medical evidence to the school so she could be allowed back in class about six to 12 months after giving birth.
“The new policy should take into consideration the vulnerability of these girls. There should be a legal mechanism to protect them, also penalties should be heftier to deter the culprits,” said Assey.
“Not every single girl who falls pregnant got it consciously. Some of them were raped. So expelling them from school is like condemning them.”
Kidawa Halfan, now 21, who was expelled after falling pregnant while at Masjid Quba secondary school in Dar es Salaam welcomed the government’s move saying it would help girls acquire necessary life skills.
“I have learnt a bitter lesson. Never again shall I play with boys. If I get a chance I would like to learn weaving,” she said Halfan, the mother of a four-year-old daughter.
Paulina Mkonongo, the director of secondary education at Tanzania’s Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, said the government is committed to help all girls get an education.
“The government has set a vision to enable girls to continue with their studies after delivery while taking stern measures against those who will be implicated in the criminal incidence,” she said. (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; )