Let Us Unite to Restore Her Potential
In November 2021, the Tanzanian government lifted a ban on adolescent mothers attending school. Prudence Masako, EngenderHealth country representative for Tanzania, recalls one of her classmates whose education was derailed by this policy and outlines her recommendations for what Tanzania can do to help young mothers continue their education.
By Prudence Masako, EngenderHealth Country Representative for Tanzania
Today, I would like to honor my classmate Lucy (not her real name), one of many survivors of a system of inequitable sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). What happened to Lucy shaped me and made me realize how unjust the SRHR landscape is in our society.
Lucy and I met when I began my secondary education at a public, girls-only boarding school. We shared a love of science; I was studying physics, chemistry, and biology while she was taking chemistry, biology, and geography. She was a quiet, brilliant student who took her studies very seriously. As someone who lives to converse, I was always the first to strike up a conversation and get her talking. Then one day, which I still remember so vividly, I noticed Lucy seemed upset and lost in thought. As usual, I couldn’t help but probe and asked what was wrong. Lucy told me she was having issues with her stomach, which was swelling for no reason and was hurting a lot. I felt so sorry for her and wanted to help. Being young and naïve, I never suspected she might be pregnant. I reported Lucy’s health problems to the teacher on duty, who granted me a gate pass to take her to a nearby hospital for treatment.
After returning to school later that day, the second master called me to his office to ask why I had brought my friend to the hospital. I was surprised and didn’t understand why he was questioning me. Should I have left her at school without proper medical attention? In her condition, Lucy needed to be rushed to the hospital. I remember being very confident in expressing my concern to the second headmaster. He continued asking why I had taken Lucy to the hospital. Eventually, he realized I didn’t understand the situation. He told me Lucy was pregnant; in fact, she was in labor already! I was shocked and saddened, knowing that the school would expel Lucy because of this. By then, we only had about six months remaining before our Advanced-level graduation. Instead of graduating with our class, Lucy was forced to leave school and return to her home village. All her hard work and dreams just ended there! My classmates and I were all devastated that this could happen to our bright, talented friend.
Looking back on this, I feel society failed Lucy and so many other girls just like her. We cold-shoulder teenage girls who become pregnant and normalize their rejection as a part of our society. Research has shown a direct link between education and a girl’s overall health and wellbeing. When a girl is denied the right to education and schooling, she is also denied the right to live a life of dignity and protection. She is denied the right to live her life to its full potential, and her child is pushed into a negative cycle that often leads to malnutrition, poor health, barriers to education, and stigma.
Why have we allowed this to happen? Pregnant girls are already vulnerable due to social stigma and discrimination and are often disowned by their own families. In addition, too many girls still do not have access to information, resources, and care to help them prevent unintended pregnancies. Women and girls deserve to be able to make free, informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, and we should not punish them for becoming pregnant.
I know many of us have become accustomed to this practice and stopped noticing the devastating impact it has had on the lives of pregnant girls in Tanzania. I commend President Samia Suluhu Hassan for repealing this ban and creating the opportunity for a brighter future for each young girl in our country. However, the president’s announcement is not enough. The change is not yet an official policy. In addition, if enacted as announced, girls would only be allowed back into the classroom after they have given birth. Therefore, I urge all relevant parties to enact any policies needed to formally ensure the right to education for all girls, regardless of their pregnancy or parental status. I also recommend the Ministries of Education and Vocational Training; Health, Community, Development, Gender, Elderly, and Children; and Information, Youth, Culture, and Sports to collaborate with civil society organizations and development partners to create and carry out initiatives to make any new policies more robust, inclusive, and effective. These initiatives should focus on:
- standardizing the policy change across the country to protect a girl’s right to education no matter where she attends school in Tanzania;
- sensitizing all parents, community and religious leaders, and educators on girls’ rights to education and schooling, irrespective of their marital or pregnancy status;
- providing better academic, logistical, mental health, and social support services for young mothers when they return to school, including childcare support for those from low-income families;
- redefining the concept of inclusive education to include pregnant adolescents and mothers re-entering the formal education system and training educators on how to accommodate their needs in the classroom;
- offering age-appropriate, accurate SRHR information and services to girls and boys so that they better understand their bodies, how to care for their wellbeing, and how to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancies;
- creating safe environments for girls to help prevent unintended pregnancies as well as incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, i.e., build hostels for girls to provide a safe place to stay and reduce long-distance travel; and
- documenting and sharing best practices and analyzing the positive contributions of this policy change to the country’s development and economy.
Lifting this ban is not the end; it is the beginning of a new journey of transformation for our education system and our society. When I heard the news about the ban being lifted, I felt hope and joy. However, I still carry deep sadness for the 60 years women and girls in this country had to endure the uncertainty of their right to education. It is our responsibility to create the policies and societal norms that will protect and ensure this right so that no girl in Tanzania will ever again be denied an education due to pregnancy like my friend Lucy was.