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In Tanzania, as everywhere, pregnant girls deserve an education!

Jackie Leonard Lomboma and her daughter Rose

At a rally last week, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli declared that pregnant school girls would never be allowed to return to school. The President’s statement sparked a heated debate, in Tanzania and elsewhere. For the past two days, Kenyans have weighed in, using the hashtag #StopMagufuli. Yesterday, Tanzania’s Minister for Home Affairs, Mwigulu Nchemba, threatened NGOs who “support” pregnant school girls returning to school and those “supporting” homosexuality with decertification. Commentators noted the dire consequences of excluding pregnant school girls from education while others discussed the gross, and patriarchal, unfairness of the policy, and others invoked tradition and nation.

President Magufuli’s declaration emerged after a months’ long debate in Tanzania’s Parliament over the budget. That debate included a move to fund policies and structures that would help pregnant school girls stay in school and return to school after giving birth. While Members of Parliament were divided, a sizeable group favored this idea.

For decades, activists, researchers and others have organized to end child marriage and the exclusion of pregnant school girls from education. A recent study reported, “In Tanzania, …  school officials conduct pregnancy tests and expel pregnant students. Nineteen-year-old Rita, from northern Tanzania, said she was expelled when she became pregnant at age 17. `Teachers found out I was pregnant,’ she said. `I found out that no student is allowed to stay in school if they are pregnant … I didn’t have the information [sexual education] about pregnancies and what would happen.’”

Researchers have long shown that Tanzanian school girls experience pregnancy and early school-leaving at exceptionally high rates. Access to reproductive health and to sex and sexuality education are limited, especially in the rural areas. Further, the policy of exclusion violates the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania as much as it does the aspirations and autonomy of young Tanzanian girls: “The Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania recognizes the right to education to every child, … denying pregnant schoolgirls’ re-entry to school after giving birth infringes the right to equal access to education and … the infringement of the right to education by denying pregnant school girls’ re-entry to school after delivery has great harm.” What harms the girl harms the Constitution harms the Nation harms the future.

Two years ago, when this current President and current Parliament were elected, some wondered if 2015 might be the year of the girl child in Tanzania, the year in which child marriages would be abolished and in which the girl child would be respected. It wasn’t.

Jackie Leonard Lomboma directs a center for teenage mothers in Morogoro, Tanzania. She became pregnant while in school. Orphaned at three months, raised by her grandfather, she managed to finish primary school, but there was no money for secondary school. A young man offered her money for school if she would “be with him.” They met once, and she became pregnant. She never saw him again. Her grandfather kicked her out, and the village ostracized her.

She began work as a house maid, and moved to Uganda to work for a Tanzanian family there. When the family moved to another place, the mother asked the young woman what she would want as a “goodbye gift”, and Jackie Leonard Lomboma answered, “I told her I wanted to go to school …  I knew it was only through education that I could make a positive step in my life and give a better life to my child … Eventually she agreed to take me to school.”

Jackie Leonard Lomboma completed secondary school in Uganda, and then returned to Tanzania. Today, she is disappointed: “It is a big disappointment to hear the president say that girls who get pregnant should not be allowed back to school. I am very disappointed because Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and in order for us to overcome this we need to empower underprivileged groups like teenage mothers with education … I was empowered through education, that is why today I am supporting other girls to stand up again.”

When Jackie Leonard Lomboma talks of secondary school, she talks of the dream, as do school girls in Malawi, India, the United States, South Africa and everywhere else. They all have a dream that someday we will all have gone to school, together, and will all have flourished there, and that that day must be now.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC / Jackie Leonard Lomboma)

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