NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 55,000 Tanzanian schoolgirls have been expelled from school over the last decade for being pregnant, perpetuating their vulnerability and poverty, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) said on Thursday.
From the age of 11, schoolgirls are forced to undergo humiliating and painful pregnancy tests as often as once a month, the U.S.-based advocacy organisation said in its report, “Forced out: Mandatory pregnancy testing and the expulsion of pregnant students in Tanzanian schools”. If pregnant, they are expelled immediately.
“Girls are expelled from school regardless of how they get pregnant,” Evelyne Opondo, CRR’s Nairobi-based Africa director, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“A lot of the girls who get pregnant at that age are actually girls who are vulnerable. They are girls from poor families. They are girls who have been exposed to sexual violence,” she said.
One of the girls interviewed for the report was raped at the age of 13. Others were sleeping with older men in exchange for school fees, food or shelter.
“When you expel them from school, you deny them that chance of education. You confine them to that circle of poverty,” said Opondo. “They will remain poor and their children will be poor most likely.”
Expelled teenagers face widespread stigma, the possibility of being forced into marriage and the challenge of providing for themselves and their babies. Some wealthier families are able to send their daughters to private schools but the majority end up looking for casual work.
None of the expelled girls interviewed has a full-time job. Some work part-time in hotels or restaurants or sell food on the streets. Several were thrown out by their families and one ended up homeless.
Tanzania has a problem with high teenage pregnancy rates. Over 44 percent of Tanzanian girls have given birth or are pregnant by the age of 19. It also has one of the world’s lowest rates of transition – of both girls and boys – from primary to secondary school, at 36 percent.
The punitive measures meted out by schools ignore the underlying realities that cause adolescent girls to get pregnant in the first place, the report said.
“Rather than prevent pregnancy, these practices simply prevent access to quality education,” it said.
Virtually all of these pregnancies are unwanted. Schools do not provide sex education so many girls do not know that sex can lead to pregnancy. Healthcare providers deny them contraceptives because they are unmarried.
According to the survey, almost 40 percent of the girls who experienced sexual violence said they were attacked either on the way to or from school or while at school. Perpetrators included teachers – who sometimes traded sex for grades – bus conductors and taxi drivers.
To save money, schools do not do the standard urine tests, but instead order the teenagers to remove their tops so that teachers or health care providers can look at their breasts and stomachs.
“We have girls who have talked about their breasts being pinched and their stomachs being kneaded,” said Opondo.
Squeezing a girl’s breasts to determine pregnancy is not an accepted medical practice and palpitation of the abdomen is not effective prior to the second trimester, the report said.
The tests are carried out without warning, explanation or consent, to instil fear in the girls.
“A lot of people see this as a moral question which really is not what the issue should be about,” said Opondo.
She points to the contradictions in Tanzanian law. While it is an offence to have sex with a girl aged under 18, girls can legally be married at 15.
“If the law acknowledges that a little girl who is below 18 can be married, then how come these girls are expelled from school?” asked Opondo.
As it is illegal to have sex with a girl under the age of 18, pregnant teens are sometimes arrested and questioned.
In 2011, the regional commissioner of Mbeya district, Abbas Kandoro, ordered local authorities to arrest and prosecute any student who became pregnant, the report said.
“I think the practice of arresting only those who make girls pregnant is not enough, we now need to also arrest those who get pregnant,” he said.
“We want to put an end to this trend (of teenage pregnancy), and the girls must cooperate and name those who have impregnated them.”
The government of mainland Tanzania is revising its education policy but the new draft retains the current “punitive and coercive approach”, the report said. It would require schools to conduct periodic pregnancy tests, force pregnant students to reveal who impregnated them and only allow one readmission opportunity.
CRR called on the Tanzanian government to address the root causes of unwanted teenage pregnancies: providing comprehensive sex education in schools; improving access to reproductive health services; and strengthening protection against sexual violence, particularly in schools.