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Multiple barriers keep 1.5 million Tanzanian kids out of secondary school

Students in Iringa, Tanzania. (Credit: Camfed/flickr)

Despite improving access to primary education, children in Tanzania often do not continue on to secondary schools.

Barriers including lack of rural schools, pressure to work and high-stakes exams prevent more than half of Tanzanian youth from enrolling in secondary school. Limited alternative options leave millions of young people at a lifelong disadvantage, according to Human Rights Watch.

“The government has repeatedly committed to ensuring secondary education for all,” Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Now the government needs to open the way for secondary education by ending discriminatory and abusive policies and removing the remaining barriers between many students and a quality education.”

Tanzania took a major step by abolishing school fees in December 2015. The roughly $50 annual fee was too much for many families. Human Rights Watch applauded the decision, but stressed that the government must do more – particularly for girls.

Martínez and other Human Rights Watch researchers visited more than 220 secondary schools throughout 2016. They interviewed students, teachers, administrators and parents to understand what is happening in schools and what prevents students from continuing.

A series of problems emerged – many that affect education in other low- and middle-income countries.

The story of Imani illustrates the range of issues. She traveled 90 minutes to get to school each day. She often arrived tired and late to school. When she was 16, her tutor raped her and she became pregnant. School administrators kicked her out of school when they learned of the pregnancy, and Imani could not return to school after she gave birth.

“My dream was shattered then,” she said, according to Human Rights Watch. “I was expelled from school. I was expelled from [my sister’s]home, too.”

She is one of an estimated 8,000 girls who drop of out school each year because they are pregnant. The government also allows schools to expel students who are forcibly married before they turn 18 years old. Chances of re-enrollment are virtually impossible, robbing the girls of a chance to finish school.

Tanzania is among the worst-performing countries in Africa for keeping girls in school. The drop off for girls attendance between primary and secondary school is stark. Girls outnumber boys in primary school classrooms, but by the end of secondary school, the classroom is nearly two-thirds boys, according to the World Bank.

WB Tanzania girls

“The inability of girls to progress is not the result of a failure of girls to pass qualifying examinations, rather it is the results of a boy bias in household demand for secondary schooling in some regions of Tanzania,” according to a World Bank report on Tanzanian schools.

School costs remain high even though school fees were abolished. Some students reported that they traveled more than 15 miles to get to school. Students either walk or have to find and pay for transportation. Families also still pay for uniforms and books, which still cost enough to hurt poor families. Students with disabilities are essentially shut out because schools aren’t built for them and don’t accommodate special needs.

“Tanzania’s abolition of secondary school fees and contributions has been a huge step toward improving access to secondary education,” said Martinez in the report. “But the government should do more to address the crowded classrooms, discrimination, and abuse that undermine many adolescents’ education.”

Human Rights Watch offered a series of recommendations to improve access. Officials urged an end to corporal punishment and discrimination against girls. They also suggested changing rules about secondary-school exams and supporting more vocational schools. Currently, students have one chance to pass an exam at the end of primary school to enroll in secondary school. If a student fails that exam, they’ve reached the end of their educational options.

The group also recommended improving the quality of secondary education. Some classes had 70 students in them, the researchers said, and the quality of teaching varied greatly. Not all students had access to books and other necessary materials. Access and enrollment in school didn’t mean that the students were learning what they would need to know to pass the two national-level exams in order to graduate.

There are more than 5 million children in Tanzania between 7 and 17 who aren’t attending school. Children under 15 represent nearly half of the country’s population, and they are failing to access a key component to Tanzania’s development progress.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]