About a year ago, I found myself standing in front of about a hundred Tanzanian secondary-school girls. Ranging from ages 12 to 19, I gathered these girls to discuss menstrual health and hygiene. I’d been living in the village of Mvaa for almost a year working with the Peace Corps, and I’d spent the first few months narrowing my focus for young adult outreach. After numerous conversations with the student body, school administrators, the village government, and health clinic workers, it was clear what we needed to address — sexual health care. This proved far more difficult than a scheduled seminar to discuss sexual wellness, due to cultural taboos and national laws prohibiting and restricting education around safe sex practices, pregnancy, and menstruation. In 2017, the current president John Magufuli reintroduced a 1960s-era discriminatory law that “stops pregnant girls in Tanzania from attending regular school and punishes teachers who don’t honor the ban.” Secondary-school girls are often subject to mandatory pregnancy tests during the school day to ensure compliance with this mandate.
If a girl is, in fact, pregnant, the girl will be banned from regular school — forced to resort to vocational or unaffordable private institutions. According to the Tanzanian Ministry of Health, “27% of girls aged 15 to 19 are pregnant,” making it one of the world’s highest teen pregnancy rates. In 2018, this boiled down to approximately 70,000 teen pregnancies that year. The draconian laws that prohibit pregnant girls or teenage mothers from attending school, contribute greatly to the chasm in education, where, according to the Human Rights Watch “over five million children aged 7 to 17 are out of school.” These statistics have led to Tanzania ranking 159th out of 187 in the United Nations’ global education index.
With such staggering numbers of students going uneducated, it's important to note the myriad causes. Tanzanian children miss school for a number of reasons, including “financial problems, long distances to schools, endemic corporal punishment, or because they failed the primary school-leaving exam.” While these challenges hold true for many students in Tanzania, girls face additional obstacles, such as culturally negative attitudes about the value of educating girls, sexual harassment and assault, and expulsion if they become pregnant.
More often than not, if a teenage girl does become pregnant, she is often married off. According to the Human Rights Watch “two out of five girls marry before they reach 18, and the routine expulsion of married girls means that is usually the end of their education.” The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that, in 2016, the Parliament passed a provision announcing that men “who impregnate or marry schoolgirls will face 30 years in prison.” Supposedly meant to deter older men from pursuing young girls, the provision doesn’t quite add up logically. While this provision is meant to protect girls, we can clearly see how it might also perpetuate cycles of poverty — leaving the young woman uneducated and the father in prison. Ultimately, the only statistically proven way to reduce teenage pregnancy is to provide proper sexual health education. As we see in the United States, abstinence-only based sexual education oftentimes leads to spikes in pregnancy and STD rates.
Adolescent girls that are expelled or excluded from education are more likely to be forced into early marriages, participate in commercial sex work, live on the streets, be chronically unemployed, and perpetuate cycles of poverty. In order to circumvent the provision to target men who impregnate adolescent school girls, young girls that become pregnant are often forced into early marriages. The women’s rights laws in Tanzania are often vague, conflicting, and discriminatory, which, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, leads to “the catastrophic nexus of forced, early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and expulsion from school.”
Often times adolescent girls participate in transactional sex, in which “girls exchange sex for school fees, food, and shelter.” When poverty and sexual assault are both prevalent, many young girls find themselves in sexual situations far beyond their capacity to control. Although child marriage is illegal, there are numerous loopholes. Felista Mauya, the CEO of the Dar es Salaam-based NGO Legal and Human Rights Centre said, “legislation around child marriages in Tanzania isn’t tight enough.” She cited the provision saying, “anyone under the age of 18 isn’t allowed to marry, but 15-year-olds can marry with parental consent,” and 14-year-olds can marry with a court’s permission. It almost seems as if these provisions are specifically created to protect male-abusers.
President Magufuli’s primary focus is building the infrastructure and economy of Tanzania. In the early days of his presidency, he was “adamant about fighting corruption to ensure equitable development.” With a strong nationalistic leaning, Magufuli aimed to build the nation’s image on the global stage. Unfortunately, social causes proved to be out of mind for Magufuli, who began making increasingly sexist and homophobic remarks, as well as enforcing policies that violate LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights.
While focusing on economic and structural concerns is absolutely important, “he should know that it’s impossible to achieve development without achieving gender equality” as various studies have shown. More recently, Magufuli has begun to bend slightly when it comes to education. This is in large part due to international humanitarian outcry about the human rights violations of expelling pregnant girls. Attempting to curtail criticism, Magufuli has built new schools and gotten rid of fees that limited lower-income demographics from attending secondary school. According to Human Rights Watch, “these laudable efforts stand in sharp contrast to Tanzania’s failure to reverse policies that allow and even encourage schools to discriminate against female students and tolerate impunity for sexual harassment and abuse against girls.” In April 2020, Tanzania received a $500 million dollar loan from the World Bank that had been delayed for a number of years due to these policies restricting the rights of girls. According to Reuters, the education minister, Joyce Ndalichako, “the loan aims to improve access to and the quality of secondary education for all Tanzania students,” and, “the target is to reach more than 6.5 million secondary school students across the country, without discrimination and shall include girls who drop out of school for various reasons, including pregnancy.”
Ideally, Tanzania moves towards a more equitable education system for all of the young people in the country. After all, education is the one proven pathway towards ending cycles of poverty. When education intersects with gender equity, development is within reach. They could certainly learn from their neighbors in Kenya, where “girls are actively encouraged to stay in school for as long as possible and steps are taken to support their re-entry after they give birth.” Across the globe, sexual education that is rooted in shame and impurity perpetuates poverty and misinformation. Adolescent girls and boys deserve to be fully educated and empowered to make fully-informed decisions about their sexual lives. All people deserve to have sex safely. The young especially need to be embued with the agency and autonomy to build more prosperous futures for themselves.
When I first began visiting the secondary school and gathering with the group of girls, they were all hesitant to talk. I cleared the room of any men, including the teachers. Left to my own devices and intermediate Swahili skills, I told them, Hapa ni nafasi salama — this is a safe space, na leo tutaongea kuhusu ngono, na hedhi, na afya ya wanawake — and today we are going to talk about sex, and menstruation, and women’s health. I wrote the word sex and menstruation on the blackboard and they all giggled and hid their faces. After talking for about twenty minutes, I asked if there were any questions, and every hand shot into the air. Because — of course. Women want to know about their bodies. Women know the consequences of our bodies being controlled externally. Women are keenly aware of their ability to dictate their wellness and security in connection to their bodies. This is just as true for young girls in American reading their mom’s old copy of Gloria Steinem, as it is for young girls in the mountains of Tanzania. We, women, are far more connected than it may seem. And we all are born into this world with the right to know our bodies and our choices both intimately and fully.