Punish the perpetrators, not victims

While Tanzanian President John Magufuli has been praised for coming down hard on corruption and the abuse of public office, his vocal support for legislation banning adolescent mothers from attending school has added nuance to the President’s public image. Brennan Baylis comments.

If there were ever a silver bullet for eradicating poverty, then educating women and girls would be it. Every extra year of secondary school increases a woman’s future earnings by around 15%. Imagine what that means for a country like Tanzania, eager to develop and keen to become a leading economy in Africa. That cycle of poverty gets closer to becoming a cycle of prosperity with every extra girl who’s educated.

However, despite being a man seemingly dedicated to the task of improving the quality of life of his citizens, Tanzanian President John Magufuli recently warned schoolgirls – “After getting pregnant, you are done.”

In June, at a public rally in Chalinze town – about 100km west of Dar es Salaam – Magufuli said that young mothers would not only be distracted if they were allowed back in school but would also “promote loose morals” in the school setting.

“In my administration, as long as I am president . . . no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. We cannot allow this immoral behaviour to permeate our primary and secondary schools . . . never. After calculating a few mathematical (sums) she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom ‘let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby’ . . . After getting pregnant, you are done!”

His comments are based on a 1961 law that allows state schools in Tanzania to ban young mothers from attending. A second law passed in 2002 allows for the expulsion of pregnant schoolgirls for “offences against morality . . . and wedlock.” According to a 2013 report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, over 55,000 pregnant Tanzanian schoolgirls have been expelled from school in the past decade.

His recent comments directly contradict a promise set out in his party’s (CCM) 2015 election manifesto, which pledged to allow pregnant schoolgirls to continue with their studies – a promise which gained him popularity with the Tanzanian youth. It was Magufuli himself who last year was the first to crack down on school fees, making state schools completely free while also limiting the fees of private schools.

Petrider Paul, a Tanzanian Campaigner for the Voice Out Against Gender–Based Violence Initiative, said that the ban “came as a surprise to many who consider President John Pombe Magufuli to be an ideal role model to Africa and Tanzania” and that the CCM’s popularity is at risk in the upcoming 2020 elections “considering the fact that the President has shown to defy and not prioritise human rights issues, especially those related to girls and women.”

A coalition of human and women’s rights groups has strongly condemned his comments as both unconstitutional and a violation of international human rights conventions. The hashtag #StopMagufuli trended for weeks, while #ArudiShule (which means ‘she should go back to school’) gained a lot of popularity amongst tweeting Tanzanian youths, who were angry and confused about how preventing pregnant girls from returning to school would help end teen pregnancy.

An online petition opposing the ban has gained almost 4,000 signatures.

8,000 pregnancy-related expulsions

According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least 8,000 Tanzanian girls drop out of school every year due to pregnancy. Some wealthier families are able to send daughters that get pregnant to private schools once they are expelled from state schools, but the majority of girls affected do not return to education.

This is where poverty becomes cyclical. The more impoverished a girl is, the more susceptible she is to child marriage or getting pregnant when young. And once she becomes pregnant and is kicked out of school, she is not financially able to continue in a private setting, ultimately landing her in low-paid work.

Quality education – in particular secondary education – is what lifts families and communities out of poverty and increases a country’s economic growth.

Right now, about 5.1m children aged 7-17 are out of school in Tanzania – for many children, education ends after primary school. Three out of five Tanzanian adolescents are enrolled in lower-secondary education, and even fewer actually complete it – many due to early pregnancies.

What Magufuli has done for Tanzania cannot be ignored. He has worked tirelessly to root out corruption within both the government and the private sector, has cut back on superfluous spending by government officials, even cancelling expensive Independence Day celebrations in favour of a day cleaning the streets instead. Magufuli has shown that he will not tolerate corruption, laziness, or excessive bureaucracy. And both the Tanzanian economy and public are thriving in return.

His strength as a leader is obvious, but he is showing weakness in this situation.

Unfinished issues

It is not enough to extend free secondary education to your citizens. One must deal with the repercussions. Repercussions like poor infrastructure – Magufuli’s abolition of school fees has left gaps in school budgets, which affect the purchase of learning materials, and the hiring of additional teachers. There are issues of protecting rural girls by accommodating them in hostels close to secondary schools, something the government planned but has not carried out.

But more important than those unfinished issues are the issues of morality, law, and institutionalised sexism.

Rather than blaming and punishing pregnant schoolgirls, it is more appropriate to tackle the causes – many of which have to do with sexual harassment and exploitation. A Human Rights Report notes that Tanzanian girls face sexual harassment by teachers and abuse by bus drivers and adults who ask them for sex in exchange for money or rides to school.

The international legal organisation Equality Now points to neighbouring countries that have successfully introduced re-entry policies for young mothers. In Zanzibar for example, since 2010 girls have been allowed back into school after giving birth as a strategy for reducing the number of dropouts – and there is no evidence of an increase in student pregnancies as a result.

Pregnant schoolgirls are not corrupting the morals of other children. Perpetrators of sexual violence and forced child marriages are the people constructive policy must engage with. In his same speech last month, Magufuli mentioned that men who impregnate schoolgirls should be imprisoned for 30 years and “put the energy they used to impregnate the girl into farming in jail.”

In this he recognises the problem. But he must go one step further and actually enforce laws that prevent older men from taking advantage of young girls. The direction of blame must shift.

Magufuli has made significant strides for free and fair education in Tanzania, but now he must round out his policy. Institutionalised sexism only becomes a barrier to effective prevention and prosecution.

Improving infrastructure to create a gender-sensitive educational environment, providing sex education, and better training to teachers of both sexes – not entangling morality and sexuality with blame – is what will grow Tanzania into an even more incredible country.

Preventing pregnant schoolgirls from returning to school is not only a violation of international human rights conventions, but also incredibly detrimental to the future of Tanzania. If all women had primary education, there would be 15% fewer child deaths, saving 900,000 lives per year. If they all had secondary education, there would be 49% fewer child deaths (saving 2.8m), 64% fewer early marriages, and 59% fewer young pregnancies.

Magufuli has already demonstrated his care for his citizens, and for free education in general. Banning schoolgirls not only feels like backtracking on his former promises, but also an unproductive and morally wrong way of viewing the situation. Perpetrators of sexual violence and coercion are who we should be pointing our fingers at, not these schoolgirls. Give them education and they will thrive. Allow them to thrive, and everyone benefits. Even you, President Magufuli. – New African.

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