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Tanzania: Pregnant Student Ban Harms Thousands

Revoke Decree; Allow Pregnant Girls, Young Mothers to Attend School

The flag of the United Republic of Tanzania. © 2010 TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

Update: On November 24, 2021, Tanzania’s Ministry of Education adopted Circular No. 2 of 2021 on the reinstatement of students who dropped out of secondary education, which specifically states adolescent mothers’ right to return to public schools and grants instructions for schools to accommodate these students. This decision effectively ends Tanzania’s school ban against adolescent mothers, and places Tanzania in the group of countries that Human Rights Watch has found to “have recently removed restrictive policies, but have a policy gap.”

(Nairobi) – Tanzania’s ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers attending school has denied tens of thousands of girls their right to education, Human Rights Watch said today. Public schools across mainland Tanzania conduct compulsory pregnancy testing on female students and expel pregnant girls before they complete their compulsory education.

Since June 2017, the late President John Magufuli and his successor, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who took office in March 2021, have enforced an official ban against students who are pregnant or are mothers.

“Tanzania’s girls are suffering because the government insists on an arbitrary policy that is ending their education, humiliating and isolating them, and destroying their futures,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should urgently end this inhumane policy and allow pregnant students and mothers back in school.”

Human Rights Watch in July and August interviewed 30 girls and women ages 16 to 24. All had been expelled from school or stopped attending primary or secondary school between 2013 and 2021 because they were pregnant.

School officials and teachers are the primary enforcers of the government’s policy, often in ways that humiliate and stigmatize girls, as well as their parents and guardians. Most of those interviewed had been tested for pregnancy at school or at a local hospital or dispensary, and then summarily expelled.

A number of girls were expelled just before completing lower secondary education, a milestone for many students given the country’s low retention rates in secondary education. Several were unable to take national qualifying exams in Form 4, the last year of lower secondary school, because schools conducted pregnancy tests just before or in the middle of these exams.

School officials in Morogoro region in 2020 expelled a 16-year-old girl. Before her last two Form 4 exams: “They simply said because I was pregnant … I was supposed to be kicked out of school even though I was left with only two exams. I really don’t know what they were thinking …. They didn’t even want to hear me out. They just kicked me out of school.”

Most girls and women interviewed were not enrolled in training programs or alternative education centers. Several were enrolled in non-formal tailoring training, and a couple attended a nongovernmental school that supports girls who have been expelled from public schools.

In 2020, the Tanzanian government announced that it would allow students who were pregnant or were mothers to enroll in a parallel accelerated education program, described as “alternative education pathways.” This program will be expanded with US$180 million of the World Bank’s US$500 million loan for Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program (SEQUIP).

In describing this program, the World Bank stated that “while there is no government policy that states that students who become pregnant must be expelled from public schools, most pregnant girls do drop out.” Tanzanian government and the World Bank have sought to promote this program as a comparable education alternative for girls who have “dropped out” of school because of pregnancy.

Although alternative education pathways are important for children who prematurely drop out of school, Tanzania’s parallel system effectively remains the only option for girls who have been expelled and denied their right to education without completing compulsory education.

But most centers charge tuition, and students often have to travel long distances to them. This perpetuates the same financial and access barriers that many girls face in secondary schools. Many centers don’t offer additional support for adolescent mothers, including child care.

Tanzania is one of the three sub-Saharan African countries that Human Rights Watch found to adhere to an official ban against pregnant students. In March 2020, Sierra Leone, which had an identical discriminatory ban against pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers, reversed its 10-year-old policy. In March 2021, the Sierra Leone government adopted a policy of “Radical Inclusion,” which reaffirms pregnant girls and adolescent mothers’ right to education. Human Rights Watch found that at least 30 African Union countries now have laws, policies, or strategies to protect pregnant students and adolescent mothers’ right to education.

President Suluhu Hassan should enact a decree to effectively end the expulsion of pregnant students, order government officials to end punitive and discriminatory practices against girls, and direct the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to adopt a policy that adequately protects the rights of both pregnant students and adolescent mothers to study in public schools, Human Rights Watch said.

“Tanzania is an outlier from other sub-Saharan African countries that have adopted laws, policies, and strategies to uphold the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers,” Martinez said. “President Suluhu should end the ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers and make a commitment to safeguard and fulfill every girl’s right to an education.”

Teenage Pregnancy in Tanzania

Tanzania has a very high adolescent birth rate: 22 percent of women ages 20 to 24 give birth before age 18. According to data compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive rights organization, 360,000 girls and young women ages 15 to 19 give birth each year; and 390,000, or 57 percent of girls in this age group have an unmet need for or are not using modern contraception.

Between 2003 and 2011, over 55,000 adolescent girls were forced to drop out or were expelled due to pregnancy, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global women’s rights organization. The World Bank estimates that 5,500 pregnant students stop going to school every year, although nongovernmental organizations have previously estimated that close to 8,000 students have been forced to drop out of school each year.

Tanzania’s elevated teenage pregnancy rates shows that children and adolescents have an acute need for life-saving and protective information, yet comprehensive sexuality education is still lacking in schools. In 2017, Human Rights Watch found that many girls lacked basic knowledge of reproductive health. Often, girls and women access vital information on sexuality and reproductive health only after they are pregnant or give birth.

Fear of expulsion from school adds to the pressures many girls already face. The girls and women interviewed described financial hardships that men exploit. They said men offered them rides and money to get to school or to buy basic items, in exchange for sex. Many of those interviewed said they became pregnant as a result of rape and sexual exploitation, often by boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers or local men.

Tanzania’s School Ban

Tanzania’s Education Act, and its education expulsion regulations of 2002, permit expulsion when a student has “committed an offence against morality” or if a student has “entered into wedlock.” Although the regulations are not explicit about pregnancy, ministry officials and school officials interpret pregnancy as constituting an offense against morality. In 2013, the Center for Reproductive Rights found that pregnancy-based expulsion was a near-universal practice in Tanzania.

In 2014 and 2017, Human Rights Watch research found that public schools did not interpret this policy uniformly. Some schools allowed pregnant students and adolescent mothers to stay in school, and some head teachers personally supported including them. Still, many schools conducted compulsory pregnancy tests and regularly expelled students. Although pregnancy testing is not rooted in regulations, it is applied in the vast majority of secondary schools to implement the government’s expulsion policy. Human Rights Watch has found that pregnancy testing is a serious infringement of girls’ rights to privacy, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy.

Then-President Magufuli endorsed the expulsion policy on June 22, 2017, saying, “As long as I’m president, no pregnant students will be allowed to return to school…the warranty to go to school be it secondary or primary is forbidden.” The president’s decree, which was accompanied by threats made by Tanzania’s home affairs minister against civil society groups and activists critical of the ban, took effect immediately.

Imani A., 18, from Morogoro region, said she was 12 in 2015 when her primary school expelled her from Standard 6. “No, they didn’t tell me that [I could return to school], because the president made it clear that anyone who gets pregnant shouldn’t go back to school,” Imani said. “So they are just following the president’s order.”

Government officials have closely monitored compliance with the 2017 decree, publicly encouraging pregnancy testing and expulsion of students.

On February 29, 2020, Dodoma District Commissioner Patrobas Katambi directed heads of schools and education officers to report cases of pregnant students to the police:

Every three months, the school administrations … should put together a coordination mechanism … setting aside a special day for testing students for pregnancy and sensitization on the risks associated with pregnancy and risks associated in engaging in senseless early sexual relationships.

Katambi added that on the same day, schools should:

Announce those [students] who have been found to be pregnant and measures taken against them. For those positive cases that have been identified on that day, they should be reported to the police…This will be a measure of our performance appraisal… If you are content to see pregnancies at your school… that means you are part of [the problem], we shall know how you contribute to the problem.

He explained that within five days of these actions, he should:

Receive a full and comprehensive report on the 195 students’ pregnancy cases [reported to him] where are they, what measures were taken/not taken… how many have a ruling, how many are still pending… On this matter, I am very serious… I [will] denounce those that are hindering us. If it is the judiciary, we should able to say so, that the President [will] be made aware.

On April 3, 2020, Hassan Abbasi, chief spokesperson for the government, issued the following statements on his official Twitter account:

The idea of preventing pregnant pupils from returning to the formal education system is not to encourage students to engage in sexual acts at an early age … A girl who gets pregnant is not denied her right to education. They will continue with their studies in a different system which will be different from the formal system and will include folk development centres and VETA [technical and vocational education]…

The practice of pregnant schoolgirls not continuing with their studies did not start today, it has been the government’s stance throughout the years. The government created an alternative education system for students [who] get pregnant.

In contrast to mainland Tanzania, in the semi-autonomous island archipelago of Zanzibar, the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training effectively adheres to a conditional reentry law and policy. In April 2021, Zanzibar’s education minister reaffirmed girls’ rights to return to school after pregnancy.

Ban’s Impact on Pregnant Schoolgirls

Former students referred to various forms of humiliation, including being singled out by teachers and being used as an “example” to others. Leyla M., 23, in Kilimanjaro region, said that “The headmaster was very strict … he said I should never set foot at the school.” Esther A., 21, from a village near Kilimanjaro, was expelled from Form 2 in 2017:

My mom tried to beg [school officials] whether I could return to school after I have given birth. But they told her no, I couldn’t go back to school. They said they can’t have a mother in the classroom, and that I’ll be a bad influence on other students.

Teachers tested Gladness M., 19, at school along with all female students. In 2017, she was expelled from her secondary school in Morogoro region, when she was four-months pregnant in Form Four. “The teachers told students that I was expelled because I was pregnant,” Gladness said. “They then told other students that if they get pregnant, they’ll also be kicked out of school.”

Several girls interviewed had miscarriages, but were not allowed back into school even though they were not pregnant or parents. In 2015 in Arusha region, Maria T., 21, had a miscarriage when she was four-months pregnant in Form 2, but was not allowed to return to school:

I was kicked out at school when I was only 15 years old. I was young … I didn’t know anything about … the world – the guy who got me pregnant was also very much pressurizing me into [having an abortion]. I was scared that something worse could happen, [and] I didn’t have my family’s support … Nobody cared about me, I couldn’t go back to school. 

Half-a-dozen girls described not being allowed to take their final Form 4 exams. Without this exam, students cannot get a certificate of completion of lower secondary school or qualify for higher secondary education. Most had pregnancy tests prior to their exams.

In 2017, when she was 17, Glory R., was expelled from her secondary school in Arusha region almost at the end of Form 4: “For Form 2 and 4 students [the two grades that take qualifying national exams], a month before sitting for any exams they’d bring in the nurses to come and test us.” Girls were also tested for pregnancy every three to four months in Glory’s school.

Similarly, that year, Rebecca C., 23, was expelled from Form 4 at a secondary school in Arusha region. She was pregnant two months before the last national Form 4 exams: “Because it was routine for the school to check girls for pregnancies, when we were tested, we were found to be pregnant and we got expelled from school,” Rebecca said. She was so scared about what her parents would do to her because she was pregnant that she fled her home and had a miscarriage.

Rebecca asked school officials whether she could return to her school:

They made it very clear that I wasn’t wanted. Whether I had aborted or miscarried, they said that they would never accept me again. They told me if I go back to school, I’ll teach the rest of students bad habits.

A female head teacher in Arusha said: “Our country’s laws are very clear on that. If she is pregnant, she’ll be expelled even though she’s left with only one month [of exams] … because the law requires me to do that. I don’t have options … a teacher cannot go against that.”

In June 2016, Tanzania’s parliament adopted an amendment to the Education Act that makes it unlawful to marry a primary or secondary student, or impregnate school-going girls, with up to 30 years in prison for violators. The act further mandates every head of school to keep a record and report cases of marriages and pregnancies linked to these provisions to the district or regional commissioner.

Human Rights Watch found that schools often collect this information in very stigmatizing ways. In Simiyu region, Salma H., 19, was 15 when a man she knew raped her. Soon after, she realized she was pregnant. A close friend advised Salma not to tell her parents and gave her pills so that she could have an abortion. The abortion failed, and Salma was able to hide the pregnancy for a few months while she was in Form 1. Teachers heard rumors from other students and conducted pregnancy tests. Salma said that after she returned to school they started questioning her about the man responsible:

I didn’t want to tell them anything. They called my friend and asked her the same kinds of questions. She gave them the names of men I had slept with before. They called me back and asked me again which man from the list they got from my friend is responsible for my pregnancy. I told them I don’t know which one could be responsible.

The teachers then wrote the [expulsion] letter and mentioned three names they had heard from my friend and sent a copy of the letter to the police station, to court, and to my parents.

Teachers expelled Rose B., 20, who is from a Maasai community in Arusha region, from Form 3 in 2020. Rose was questioned at her school:

We were tested at school, that’s how the teachers found out They asked me to name the person who got me pregnant, but I refused. I was very worried. My parents were then asked to come and pick me up at the school I felt so bad, I was heartbroken, and I regretted so badly what happened to me.

Several girls described being expelled from private schools. In Arusha region, Maria T., 21, was expelled from her private school in 2015, when she was in Form 2:

There were two of us who were found to be pregnant. The teachers simply told us that we won’t be able to continue with studies because [of] the government policy … After that, they gave me a letter to take to my parents and that was the end of my studies.

That is a very bad policy because it hurts children ... Girls should be allowed to continue with school just after they’ve given birth. It should be the girl’s decision whether to go back school or not. But putting a law that forbids them from going back to school affects other girls who would want to go back to school. For instance, if I had an opportunity to go back to school after I miscarried, I would have gone back to school.

Esther A., 21, in Arusha, said:

There are a lot of challenges in the streets. Some girls give birth when they are very young … a girl is still not clever enough to look for something to do, or her parents are not supporting her, those are the kind of girls who [can] just end up being in the streets ... They should just allow her to go back to school and continue with her studies so that she doesn’t cut her dreams short.

Tanzania’s World Bank-Funded Alternative Education Pathways Program

In March 2020, the World Bank approved a $500 million loan for Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program, including $180 million for Alternative Education Pathways (AEPs) and a safe schools program for girls. Human Rights Watch and others   criticized the World Bank’s decision to approve the loan despite clear evidence of Tanzania’s discriminatory education practices, and raised concerns regarding the bank’s compliance with its commitments to nondiscrimination.

Leonard Akwilapo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, said in a media interview that the government was acting “hand in hand with our agreement with the World Bank in relation to the education project it currently funds that requires the government to provide teen mothers with alternative pathways to education.” In March 2021, Akwilapo announced that 54 centers would begin to enroll pregnant girls and adolescent mothers as of January 2022.

Girls who are expelled still face access and financial barriers to enroll in AEP centers. Public primary and lower secondary schools are tuition free, yet the alternative education centers are not free. Programs can cost about US$150 per year, according to World Bank project documents, which note that AEP centers will only receive “subsidies” for fees for “vulnerable girls.”

A study by TENMET, Tanzania’s nongovernmental education network, found that the long distance to these centers, their placement in predominantly urban areas, and the cost created significant barriers for girls. Some girls said that given their personal circumstances and the amount of time they were out of school, they would prefer to either complete secondary education in alternative education centers or receive training to set up their own small businesses. But most said they felt constrained because they have to pay fees as well as transportation costs. Some said they also felt unable to pursue further education because they had no support with child care.

Malika M., 21, said: “I’d really like to go back to school – even tomorrow. If I get someone to pay for my school fees, I will go back to school because we’ve got financial challenges at home … These [training] schools charge tuition fees, but the old school that I used to go to never charged school fees.” But she expressed frustration that there weren’t any centers near her: “And if I go back to study, from that area, I’m likely to end up in the same situation that got me to where I am now.”

Separate schooling for pregnant students is discriminatory, Human Rights Watch said. In December 2019, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice found that Sierra Leone’s policy that banned pregnant students and adolescent mothers from schools was discriminatory. The court also ruled that the government’s alternative schools for pregnant students and mothers – which share some characteristics with Tanzania’s AEPs – were discriminatory and a violation of girls’ right to education.

Key Recommendations

  • The President’s Office for Regional Administration and Local Government should mandate all officials to stop expelling students because of pregnancy or parenthood and stop the mandatory reporting of students to the police and local commissioners.
  • The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology should:
    • Seek to amend the Education Act, and revise the accompanying 2002 Education (Expulsion and Exclusion of Pupils from Schools) Regulations, and insert protections for pregnant students and adolescent mothers, learning from good practice in other African countries.
    • Urgently adopt a national continuation policy, school guidelines, and a national comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.
    • End mandatory pregnancy testing in schools.
    • Ensure that pregnant students and adolescent mothers can take annual and qualifying Form 2 and Form 4 exams.
    • Ensure that all Alternative Education Pathways centers are tuition-free, and ensure these centers are adequately set up to accommodate adolescent mothers, including childcare support.
  • The African Union should encourage the Tanzanian government to remove the ban, urge it to cease denying girls’ right to education, and to design a “continuation” policy to ensure that pregnant students remain in school for as long as they choose to, and support adolescent mothers to return to school. 
  • Tanzania’s development partners, including the World Bank, should press Tanzania to end the school ban, and urge the government to adopt a comprehensive policy to ensure that pregnant students and adolescent mothers have the support they need to stay in school and complete secondary education.

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