Women’s rights groups have condemned Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s comments that schoolgirls who give birth should be banned from state schools.
An online petition has been set up and a pan-African women’s organization is mobilizing to get the president to reverse comments he made at a rally in Tanzania’s coast region last Thursday, where he argued that if the girls were permitted to resume studies, they would encourage other schoolgirls to engage in sex.
“As long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school,” he said, reported Reuters.
“We cannot allow this immoral behavior to permeate our primary and secondary schools.”
The president also slammed civil society organizations for pushing for the government to permit teen mothers to re-enter state schools, arguing that they should open separate schools for the teenagers themselves.
Mandatory pregnancy testing in schools and the expulsion of pregnant students from primary and secondary school have been permitted in the East African country for over 50 years. Critics say that school authorities have framed such practices to control adolescent girls’ sexuality rather than equipping them with necessary tools to make informed decisions about sex.
According to a 2013 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), more than 55,000 Tanzanian schoolgirls have been expelled from school over the last decade for being pregnant. Experts warn that low education rates are tied to a lack of proper healthcare for mother and child, illiteracy and poverty, among other development challenges.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics, the east African nation has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, and 21% of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth.
Tanzania passed a law in 2002 that allows for the expulsion of pregnant schoolgirls for “offenses against morality” and “wedlock”, but women’s rights advocates have recently been urging the government to change the law.
Two weeks ago, Tanzania’s Vice-President Mrs Samia Suluhu called for young mothers to be readmitted to school, saying they should not be denied a right to education.
The recent online petition says the president’s statement “propagates more discrimination without reconsidering that these girls need more sexual reproductive health education to be able to protect themselves from early pregnancies while in school.”
It instead calls for the girls to be protected from early pregnancies while in school.
Organizations such as the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) have also condemned the president’s comments.
“With all the work we have done to emancipate Africa’s girl-child from the shackles of discrimination and violation, a sitting president turns around to “re-victimize” and treat their situation like a terrible infectious disease which other girls must be protected from,” said FEMNET’s head Dinah Musindarwezo to BBC.