Teenage girls in Tanzania are routinely excluded from school if they become pregnant and are prevented from returning to complete their education. Yet a recent case in the Rukwa Region involving over 200 pregnant girls dropping out of school in six months, shows even this is not the worst outcome girls may face.
The threat of criminal prosecution continues to be wielded by government officials trying to find a solution to the escalating rates of teenage pregnancy in the country, up by 4% between 2010 and 2015. In the case from the Ruwka Region in West Tanzania, a local councillor told reporters that if men impregnating underage girls were going to be arrested and prosecuted, the same approach should be applied to the girls who had become pregnant.
This story is not new. In January 2018, five schoolgirls were arrested in Mtawara Region. The girls were eventually released and charges were dropped, but this incident brought international attention to Tanzania’s high rates of pregnancy.
Pregnancy at a young age presents various social and economic challenges. These include stigma, discrimination and risk of poverty. Punitive laws which prevent pregnant girls and young mothers from remaining in school reinforce these by closing off opportunities to improve economic outcomes as well as reinforcing shame and social exclusion.
A 2017 Human Rights Watch report estimated this policy has contributed to 1.5 million adolescents being denied access to education in Tanzania in 2017. In November 2018, the World Bank pulled $300 million in aid funding from the Tanzanian government. The organisation’s spokesperson cited unease with the country’s barriers to girls’ education that the policy represented.
The link between acquiring a secondary education, and outcomes such as expanded choices, opportunities and economic independence is well documented. Girls in Tanzania see education as key to their own personal aspirations around work as well as being intrinsically valuable. Yet World Bank data shows that girls’ completion rates at lower secondary level have dropped 6% since 2012.
Tackling this decline requires addressing barriers girls face to enrolment and retention, such as economic conditions and social inequalities. Yet reports like the one from Rukwa Region suggest that a hardline, punitive stance on teenage pregnancy in Tanzania isn’t going away any time soon.
Indeed, President John Magufuli, who was elected in 2015, has continued to reiterate support for the 1963 law which allows schools to ban girls once they become pregnant.
The root of the problem
It’s unlikely that the threat of arrest will reduce teenage pregnancy. Teenage pregnancy rates in Kenya, for example, are significantly lower at 18% compared to 27% in Tanzania, according to the latest Demographic and Health Survey. They have also not risen in the way that rates in Tanzania have. The Kenyan government actively encourages girls who have given birth to return to school. Kenya also has significantly better educational inclusion than Tanzania, despite Kenyan girls facing similar socio-economic constraints and pressures.
In contrast, the most recent large-scale data on teenage pregnancy from the Demographic and Health Survey in 2015/16 showed that more than one in four teenage girls in Tanzania had become mothers, increasing by 4% since 2010.
The justification for exclusion of pregnant teenage girls is that they are a “bad influence” on other students. This notion is echoed in calls for the arrest of pregnant girls by government officials; their pregnancy is treated as evidence of a moral failing, and they are at risk of contaminating others.
Yet a major factor driving rates of teenage pregnancy is a lack of social and economic capital, which makes girls vulnerable and forces them to seek out relationships which offer them the support they need to survive. Risk of pregnancy is increased by a lack of knowledge about contraceptive methods, and its inaccessibility – teenage girls in Tanzania have the lowest contraceptive use rates in East Africa.
What research tells us
My research shows that social networks like friendships and links to the community can be sources of support and solidarity for girls. These generate social capital which enables them to resist pressures around sex and relationships. Friendships with like-minded students and support systems in the wider community, including church groups, helped girls to feel confident about pursuing goals that mattered to them and to reject sexual relationships they did not want.
Excluding girls from school cuts them off from these forms of social capital. What’s more, the threat of arrest reinforces the stigma and shame around early pregnancy by framing it as a criminal act.
It’s likely to be girls who are already disadvantaged that will further suffer from this type of action. Given the unmet demand for contraception in Tanzania, the average age of first pregnancy is 19.5 years old.
In addition, girls from the poorest socioeconomic backgrounds are twice as likely to be married before the age of 18 compared with those in wealthier families. And in rural areas, 32% of girls become teenage mothers compared to 18% in urban centres.
Instead of expelling and arresting schoolgirls, the government must pay attention to the drivers of teenage pregnancy, which are entirely overlooked in current punitive policies. Youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services can help girls to avoid pregnancy, but gender inequality and poverty intersect in ways which increase the likelihood of girls getting pregnant while still in school.
Girls suffer from particularly high drop-out rates due to the demands of childcare, cooking and domestic chores that eat into their time to study. At secondary level, students must also pay fees for various items, even in state schools. Families that don’t recognise the value of educating their daughters are reluctant to fund their schooling. This means girls must make money themselves. Poverty is a significant driver of transactional sex in exchange for gifts and money amongst young women, which puts girls at risk of pregnancy because of the lack of negotiating power over condom use that characterises these encounters.
Rates of teenage pregnancy and childbirth in Tanzania are only likely to increase if action isn’t taken to help girls overcome challenges like these, rather than marginalise them further.
Tanzania ratified the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and made a commitment to “leave no one behind” by addressing structural drivers of inequality in an integrated way. But if current trends continue, Tanzania will fail to meet these targets and fail a generation of the most vulnerable girls.