Pregnant Girls in Public Schools, ‘Immoral’? The Case of Tanzania’s Expulsion Policy
Fleurine Saez - Associate, Reducing Inequalities Mandate.
Picture credit: Women in Law and Development in Africa
“When the head teacher found out that I was pregnant, he called me to his office and told me, ‘You have to leave our school immediately because you are pregnant.’”
-Jamida Kahama, 2014.
This scenario, as voiced by a primary school girl in Tanzania, has become the norm for far too many girls in the region. Since 1961, Tanzania has banned pregnant girls from attending public schools. Though not explicitly stated, the country’s 2002 Educational Regulation (Regulation No. 4), which has the force of law, notes that individuals who commit an “offence against morality” can be expelled from primary and secondary school. This phrase has been interpreted by school and government officials alike to include adolescent pregnancy. In his 2017 public statement, former President Magufuli reaffirmed this ban, asserting
“As long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school … After getting pregnant, you are done.”
But nowhere in chapter 15 of Tanzania’s Penal Code, dealing with offenses against morality, is adolescent sexual activity nor pregnancy mentioned. Nonetheless, reports show that an estimated 55,000 Tanzanian schoolgirls have been expelled under these circumstances over the past 10 years.
State Obligations under Domestic and International Law
For reference, Tanzania acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in 1976, Article 13 stating that everyone has a right to education. Tanzania also ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in 1984, Article 17 reiterating this right to education. Hence, the state has an obligation to progressively realize such a right for all its peoples, with the immediate duty to provide free primary education. But this has not been the case in Tanzania. On the contrary, the country has taken retrogressive measures. These measures are completely unjustified according to international human rights frameworks; resource constraints are not a problem in this case and the imposed limitation (restricting pregnant girls’ access to education) has no legitimate aim.
Moreover, direct and substantive discrimination is also a key issue. Though girls who are found out to be pregnant are expelled from school, boys responsible for impregnating girls are not. Under international law, Article 3 of the CESCR, states are to “ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights”, including the right to education. Likewise, CESCR General Comment #13 highlights that states have an immediate obligation to guarantee that the right to education be exercised without discrimination, in parallel to making education “accessible to all, especially the most vulnerable groups, in law and [in practice]”. Vulnerable groups include pregnant women as well as children below the age of 18. Victims of the expulsion policy fall under both such categories.
Picture credit: Global Education Monitoring Report
Theoretically, Tanzania’s national law also protects pregnant girls' right to education under the 2009 Law of the Child Act which asserts children’s right to nondiscrimination on the grounds of “gender, age, health status or of other status.” But instead of meeting their obligations by taking deliberate and targeted steps towards the realization of the right to education, Tanzania’s government has done the opposite. It has adopted an education expulsion policy that results in discrimination against females on the basis of pregnancy.
Gender (in)Equality in Education
Nearly 50% of Tanzania’s total population is under the age of 15, yet its youth remains significantly marginalized, especially young girls. It should be noted that the government has taken actions to increase access to public education by removing fees for public primary and secondary schools. This has led to an increase in school enrollment of both boys and girls. However, Tanzania’s ban on pregnant school girls severely restricts girls’ access to public education.
Data from the World Bank reveals that out of the 60,000 students who annually drop out of secondary education in Tanzania, 5,500 are due to pregnancy. And between 2007 to 2013, approximately 23% of females aged 15–19 were teenage mothers in Tanzania. This raises the troubling question- how many of these girls were expelled from school, if not all? Ultimately, the punitive nature of Tanzania’s educational regulation shines light on the grave gender inequality still present within the country’s education system, and society as a whole. Despite recent progress, Tanzania remains a highly patriarchal society in which women continue to face discrimination in various areas of life, education included.
In Tanzania’s public schools, girls are often subject to mandatory pregnancy testing. If they are found out to be pregnant, they are expelled from public school and banned from returning after giving birth. Both the ban and pregnancy testing are efforts aimed at preventing premarital sex and pregnancy. However, such policies grossly violate girls’ fundamental human rights such as the freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment and the right to education.
Picture credit: Tanzanian Education Project
Furthemore, due to financial and social constraints, very few girls return to continue their studies. For example, girls wishing to return to secondary school following their pregnancy must either enroll in private school or Alternative Education Pathway schools, both of which charge fees. Since the state does not provide viable alternatives to public education for these young mothers, they are left with few options. They can either pay a high cost for education or drop out of school altogether. From an international human rights law point of view, it can be argued that by not making schools economically accessible, the state is violating its positive obligation to fulfill the right to affordable education for all.
Moreover, numerous studies have shown that lack of access to basic education increases the likelihood of living in poverty. Hence, this policy can be said to effectively trap young girls and women in poverty. In doing so, they are made more vulnerable to other human rights violations such as child marriage and labor exploitation.
Till this day, the Tanzanian government has continuously failed to provide judicial remedies for its violation of pregnant girl’s right to education. Therefore, in June of 2019, a complaint was filed to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Legal and Human Rights Centre. However, the decision is still pending. And more recently, in November of last year, the international women's rights organization, Equality Now filed a petition at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights against the Tanzanian government on the matter. Equality Now’s Africa director, Faiza Mohamed, emphasizes that,
“The African Court is our last resort and we are hopeful that the voices of these girls - many of whom are victims of sexual violence or coercion - will finally be heard.”
The case is still pending hearing, however, the recent ruling of the ECOWAS Court of Justice regarding a similar policy in Sierra Leone serves as a strong legal precedent. The court concluded that the policy preventing pregnant girls from attending school was in fact discriminatory against females and violated their right to equal education. Sierra Leone’s Education Minister, David Sengeh explained that “
Overturning the ban is the first step in building a radically inclusive Sierra Leone where all children, regardless of [reproductive status] are able to live and learn in safety and dignity.”
So how else has the government worked to resolve this educational disparity? In short, few significant actions have been taken to facilitate pregnant girls’ re-entry in school after childbirth. In 2015, under the new Education and Training Policy, former President Magufuli developed guidelines for supporting pregnant girls re-entry. But such re-entry policy has yet to materialize.
Picture credit: CNN
Call to Action!
Looking forward, it is of paramount importance that the government remove this discriminatory policy. As suggested in a report published by the Center for Reproductive Rights, if the Tanzanian government’s main objective truly is to mitigate the high adolescent pregnancy rates, then the state should put in place policies which protect girls from sexual violence while increasing access to both contraceptives and reproducitve health education. And finally, the Tanzanian government should make it a priority to establish affordable, if not free, quality public education systems for young mothers so that girls can exercise their universal right to education once more. Increasing girls’ access to education will not only help reduce inequalities, but also contribute to a more stable and resilient society.
With the recent transition of power, Samia Suluhu Hassan now leads Tanzania as the country’s first female president. President Samia Suluhu Hassan sure has her work cut out for her, however she also has the opportunity to lead the country in a new direction. he new leadership must address controversial policies, such as the education expulsion policy, and make a greater effort to promote women’s rights domestically.
Fleurine Saez grew up in France, China and the United States. Due to her cross-cultural upbringing, she naturally developed a profound interest in global affairs. She is currently pursuing a M.A in Human Rights & Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs where she specializes in Migration and the Asia region. She completed her undergraduate studies from San Jose State University with honors in Political Science, during which she began conducting extensive research on state-building and democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She continues to work on research relating to Bosnia’s progress towards European Union membership. Her other research interests include international and human rights law, migration, international justice, and issues pertaining to various regions of Asia.