Tanzania: an encouraging step forward for girls’ rights
In response to a civil society lawsuit, in September 2022 the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of Children ordered the Tanzanian government to reverse its ban on pregnant girls attending school. The government now must readmit expelled girls, help them catch up, investigate cases of detention, prohibit compulsory pregnancy testing, remove pregnancy and marriage as grounds for expulsion and provide sex education. Civil society will monitor the government’s compliance and continue to push for girls’ effective access to education and sexual and reproductive rights. There’s still much to be done to address child marriage, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy and school dropouts.
There’s hope Tanzanian girls may no longer have to miss out on education if they fall pregnant. In September 2022, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of Children (ACERWC), an African Union (AU) body, ordered Tanzania’s government to reverse its ban on pregnant girls attending school. The decision came in response to a 2019 lawsuit filed by the Legal and Human Rights Centre, a Tanzanian civil society organisation (CSO), working with an international partner, the Centre for Reproductive Rights.
In November 2021 the Tanzanian government had announced its decision to let girls return to school after giving birth, but maintained its position of banning them while pregnant. Human rights organisations welcomed the step forward, following decades of morality-based policies that restricted girls’ and women’s rights. But they warned a lot more was needed to ensure effective inclusion.
To challenge the criminalisation of pregnancy and the education ban on pregnant girls and young mothers, civil society groups used every tool and took advantage of every available arena.
Now the government has no choice but to implement the changes mandated by ACERWC, which include readmitting all girls affected by the ban and giving them special support to compensate for the years lost. The government will also have to investigate multiple cases of detention of pregnant girls, prohibit compulsory pregnancy testing, remove pregnancy and marriage as grounds for expulsion and provide sex education in schools and health facilities.
Pregnancy and education
Tanzania has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world: one in four girls aged 15 to 19 is either pregnant or has given birth. Tanzanian girls lack sex education and access to contraception, are exposed to high levels of sexual violence and are often married at an early age. Tanzania ranks 11th in the world for the number of child marriages. Thirty per cent of Tanzanian girls are married before their 18th birthday.
Under the 1971 Law of Marriage Act, men can’t get married until 18, but girls can marry as young as 15 with parental consent, and even at 14 with consent of the court. In 2016 the High Court ruled that this was unconstitutional and mandated the minimum marriage age for girls to be raised to 18. But although the Court of Appeal upheld this ruling in 2019, the government failed to make any changes.
A 2009 survey showed that three out of 10 girls experienced abuse at least once before turning 18. Many teenagers are sexually exploited by their teachers and other authority figures who often coerce them into having sex in exchange for access to basic education services.
Across the African continent, teenage pregnancy and child marriage, often forced, are the main barriers against girls accessing education. All 55 AU member states have committed to ensuring inclusive education, and at least 38 have adopted laws and policies to ensure pregnant girls remain in school. But many still discriminate against female students, including through laws and policies that criminalise pregnancy and sex outside marriage.
Even in countries where bans on pregnant students have been lifted, the lack of positive policies to include young mothers in education continues to be a problem. Pregnant girls face discriminatory attitudes from teachers and intricate readmission processes, which can include the compulsory transfer to a different school, affecting the continuity of education.
Most North African countries punish ‘zina’, or unlawful sexual relations. Under the Penal Code of Mauritania, sexual relations outside marriage can be punished with 100 lashes and a year in prison. In 2018 there were reports of pregnant teenagers, including victims of gang rape, being sentenced to flogging.
Punitive approaches reinforce social taboos such that, even when not explicitly banned, girls can end up excluded. Families may stop young mothers returning to school, and girls can be discriminated against if they do, causing them to give up their education.
Changing times in Tanzania?
State hostility towards pregnant girls intensified under the authoritarian rule of President John Magufuli, a conservative populist who came to power in 2015. Magufuli was a devout Catholic who characterised COVID-19 as ‘the devil’ and urged people to gather in prayer to defeat it rather than take any practical measures to stop its spread. He died, likely due to COVID-19, in March 2021.
During his time in office, Magufuli reinforced pre-existing morality-based restrictions. The 2002 Education Regulations considered pregnancy a form of ‘misbehaviour’ and an ‘offence against morality’, and therefore grounds for expulsion. According to a 2013 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than 55,000 girls were excluded from school for being pregnant in the first decade of these regulations.
In 2016, Tanzania’s parliament passed an amendment to the Education Act making it a crime to marry or impregnate a schoolgirl and ordering teachers to report cases. Punishment of up to 30 years in prison was also imposed for rape. But these measures came with further stigmatisation of pregnant girls. In 2017, Magufuli issued an executive decree prohibiting the admission of pregnant students and punishing teachers who didn’t respect the ban. It became common practice to subject girls to compulsory pregnancy tests in state schools and health facilities.
Shortly after, the government announced plans to arrest pregnant schoolgirls to force them to testify against those who impregnated them. In 2018, human rights groups denounced several cases of detention of pregnant girls and their family members.
In April 2020, the government was forced to review its ban when the World Bank, Tanzania’s biggest international lender, made it a condition of a US$500 million education loan. This move followed civil society pressure: in 2018, several women’s rights organisations had sent an open letter to the World Bank urging it to withhold financial support until the government ended the ban.
In an attempt to comply without ceding too much ground, Magufuli allowed pregnant schoolgirls to attend alternative education centres. These were criticised for providing inferior education and girls continued to face numerous barriers to access them, including having to pay high enrolment fees and travel long distances.
2021 saw a change. In March, Samia Suluhu Hassan was inaugurated as the country’s first female president. She’d been elected vice-president alongside Magufuli in 2015, and they were re-elected for a second term in 2020. She succeeded Magufuli upon his death and is now serving the rest of his five-year presidential term, ending in 2025. There have been signs since of Suluhu trying to distance herself from her predecessor.
Time for change
Civil society has advocated for the rights of Tanzanian women and girls for decades, working to promote their sexual and reproductive rights and access to education. To challenge the criminalisation of pregnancy and the education ban on pregnant girls and young mothers, civil society groups used every tool and took advantage of every available arena.
While ACERWC was considering the case filed against the Tanzanian government, in 2020 two CSOs, Equality Now and Tanzania Women Lawyers Association, filed a similar joint lawsuit with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Three other regional and international CSOs, Human Rights Watch, the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa and Women’s Link Worldwide submitted a joint amicus curiae – friend of the court – brief in June 2022. But in December the court ruled that the case was inadmissible, since the matter had already been settled by ACERWC.
We are greatly disappointed by the @court_afchpr decision that the matter of the right to education for girls is inadmissible. Tanzania’s human rights institutions, as well as regional and intl human rights actors, joined in this matter owing to its importance. #LetGirlsLearn /1 pic.twitter.com/z95WiVf5gu— Equality Now (@equalitynow) December 1, 2022
The ACERWC decision vindicated civil society efforts and offered solid ground for work to continue. Now it’s time to keep up the monitoring and redouble advocacy efforts to make sure that change doesn’t stay on paper but rather makes a real difference to people’s lives.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Tanzania must adopt a comprehensive policy to ensure access to education by pregnant girls and young mothers.
The government of Tanzania must develop rights-based policies to address the root causes of teenage pregnancy.
Civil society should monitor the government’s compliance with the decision by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of Children and contribute their expertise towards the development of policies to ensure girls’ access to both education and sexual health services.
Cover photo by Anthony Asael/Art in All of Us via Getty Images