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Teen Mom Tanzania: denied sex education, then criminalised for pregnancy

Pregnant teenagers face expulsion from school, arrests, even death. The backlash against sex education in Africa is punishing our girls, and must end now.

Photo: Sarah Elliott for the Center for Reproductive Rights. Photo: Sarah Elliott for the Center for Reproductive Rights. All rights reserved. Tanzania was under the spotlight at the start of this year after the arrest of five school girls for becoming pregnant. The girls were held in the Mtwara region of the country along with their parents as part of a so-called crackdown on teenage pregnancy announced by district commissioner Sebastian Waryuba.

Their detention came after Waryuba ordered the arrests of 55 teenage girls who had become pregnant whilst in school in his southeastern Tandahimba district. Their male ‘partners in crime’ were also wanted by police and have been on the road since the girls were held in January.

The girls, aged between 16 and 19 years old, had already been expelled from school under the ‘offences against morality’ clause in the country’s 2002 education law, making sure that they are isolated from their peers, lest they be a corrupting influence.  

Tanzania, like its neighbouring east African countries, has major problems getting girls into school, and keeping them there. Between girls missing school due to having their periods, and the stubborn thinking that educating a girl child is essentially money down the drain, families tend to focus such investments on boys instead.

Though Tanzania abolished formal school fees and outlawed informal ‘contributions’ paid by parents in December 2015, more than 5 million children and 1.5 million adolescents remain out of school, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch. Dive a little deeper into the figures, and guess who’s missing the most school, from the earliest age? Girls.

Guess who's missing the most school, from the earliest age? Girls.

Though there is near gender parity at the start of primary school – as it is compulsory for all seven-year olds to be enrolled in school – fewer than a third of girls who complete primary school end up completing the first part of secondary school, which normally goes from ages 14-17. Only 60% of Tanzanian women are literate, according to UNESCO.

Within mainland Tanzania, those teenage girls who do manage to go through school are forced to undergo mandatory monthly pregnancy tests. There are no sexual or reproductive health classes, so the mystery of conception remains – until they end up pregnant.

According to the NGO Center for Reproductive Rights, 55,000 students have been expelled from Tanzanian schools for being pregnant over the last decade.

In rural areas, becoming pregnant early is both especially common and severely stigmatised, hence the prevalence of early marriage and backstreet abortions. The first national study into abortion by Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research and two other organisations estimated that 405,000 abortions were carried out in 2013, the vast majority of which were clandestine and unsafe.

Teenage pregnancy across Tanzania is by some estimates actually higher than it was 20 years ago. Then, there is the issue of the dismal failure to curb maternal death rates that occur when children – again, particularly rural girls – give birth.

Photo: Sarah Elliott for the Center for Reproductive Rights. Photo: Sarah Elliott for the Center for Reproductive Rights. All rights reserved. In 2010, government figures show that 23% of girls between 15 and 19 gave birth; in 2015, it was 27%. If the plan is to curb the rise in teen pregnancy it seems like someone has missed the glaringly obvious: how comprehensive sexual education would enable teenagers to avoid pregnancy.

It seems like someone has missed the glaringly obvious: how comprehensive sexual education would enable teenagers to avoid pregnancy.

Instead, there are draconian punishments and single-sex shaming, with the expulsion of girls from schools supposed to serve as some kind of warning to their classmates.

The failure of punishing tactics is reflected in the precious few available data sets around on the adolescent birth rate in Tanzania, which is almost three times the global average of 49 births per 1,000 girls, at a staggering 135 births per 1,000 girls.

If these figures are difficult to follow, to me it seems deliberate: what they are hiding is a genocide of a generation of African women. Our continent’s contribution to the loss of an estimated 30,000 teenage girls around the world who die due to complications related to childbirth and labour every year is too great.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of teenage pregnancy in the world. Next door to Tanzania, the Ugandan government has once again blocked attempts to introduce sex education for adolescents, with the first lady and minister for education, Janet Museveni, calling the distribution of free contraceptives an “erosion of morals.”

Museveni used her speech at last year’s International Day of the Girl Child to denounce contraceptives as “not our culture.” Attending one of the many galas for the NGO-invented day she said: “People are given contraceptives to use them and do what they want, have sex, take pills, conceive and abort. This is not our culture in Africa.”

"People are given contraceptives and they do what they want, have sex, take pills, conceive and abort. This is not our culture in Africa."

This attitude is unhelpful and incendiary; for teenagers, it’s downright dangerous. According to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey: "25% of adolescent girls and young women aged between 15 and 19 are either pregnant or a mother.”

The fight against sex education continues across east Africa, including with the participation of international conservative and religious organisations.

In Kenya, the right-wing Spanish campaign group CitizenGo recently presented a petition to the government accusing the national curriculum of promoting “un-African and destructive” values through a “rights based approach to sex education.”

It said that such education is “more destructive than Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab” – though neither of these terror groups have killed anywhere near the numbers of young women who die each year by forced, early pregnancy.

Photo: Sarah Elliot for the Center for Reproductive Rights. Empty desks where teenage girls should be. Photo: Sarah Elliot for the Center for Reproductive Rights. All rights reserved. CitizenGo is rallying support for their opposition to children being taught “un-African” things such as masturbation. They insist that children should be taught abstinence only. This approach is still pushed even though study after study has proven that it simply doesn’t work.

Complications during childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15-19 year old girls globally, according to the World Health Organisation, so the failure of this approach is absolutely devastating and needs urgent re-thinking.

How many other ways can the statistics prove what is already known to too many? If 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, we have to urgently ask: just how many of these pregnancies were by choice?

If 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and child birth, we have to urgently ask: just how many of these pregnancies were by choice?

Abstinence-only programmes are often pushed by religious organisations, including American fundamentalist evangelical groups. The manoeuvring of these groups is so prominent within the continent, under the deceptively innocuous ‘pro-family’ banner.

Abstinence programs that limit sex education are but one branch of their pseudo-foreign policy, which could more accurately be described as a new form of colonial meddling in Africa.

The way that culture and ‘our morals’ is being used as a reason not to have sex education is schools is extremely baffling because the African continent is littered with a history of having sexuality schools.

The arrest of pregnant girls in Tanzania is the latest painful example of the absolute failures of sex education across Africa – but it will not be the last.

About the author

Tiffany Kagure Mugo is co-founder and curator of HOLAA! a Pan Africanist hub that tackles issues surrounding African female sexuality. She is a contributor to various online platforms, writing on sex, sexuality and politics. She is also a media consultant specialising in socio-political and human rights.


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