The Tanzanian government announced it is lifting the discriminatory ban on pregnant girls and adolescent mothers attending school on Monday.
The announcement came after activists urged the World Bank to block a $500 million education loan to Tanzania until the country passed a law officially ending the ban.
President John Magufuli reinforced a law that originally passed in 2002 in 2017 that bars pregnant girls in Tanzania from attending regular school and punishes teachers who don’t honor the ban — a policy that was first introduced in the 1960s. Under the measure, schoolgirls are often subjected to mandatory pregnancy tests and run the risk of being arrested if pregnant.
Tanzania’s Ministry of Education plans to use the most recent World Bank loan to reach 6.5 million secondary school students through the program "without discrimination and include girls who drop out of school for various reasons, including pregnancy," minister Joyce Ndalichako said in a public notice letter.
The program includes interventions to address harmful social and cultural traditions and norms around early pregnancy. The Tanzanian government has already taken an important step by allowing all students to take national exams, regardless of the school they attend, according to the World Bank.
Equality Now has been campaigning to end Tanzania’s pregnancy ban since around 2017. The organization said the announcement is "good news" in a statement, but noted that the government needs to ensure it is implemented.
"This statement is behind the scenes — or should we say it's a backdoor way of lifting the ban," Equality Now’s Africa Coordinator Judy Gitau Global Citizen. "The government needs to come up here and declare that the ban has been reversed in practice ... so that the schools can stop dismissing girls who are pregnant, or investigating girls who are pregnant, and allow girls to come back."
The World Bank withheld another education loan in 2018, for the same reason, but the country responded with a measure to allow pregnant students to attend alternative schools, which still perpetuates stigma and discrimination.
"A lot of these girls do not have the resources to attend these side schools," Gitau said. "It relegates them to the cycle of poverty that they're trying to get out of, and it doesn't address the underlying issues that result in the girls getting pregnant in the first place, which is girls being sexually violated."
It is unclear if Tanzania has opened alternative schools for pregnant girls or if they are efficient, according to partners Equality Now works with on the ground, Gitau said.
Every year, 60,000 students drop out of secondary school in Tanzania, and 5,500 leave due to pregnancy. Tanzania also has one of the highest rates of child marriage prevalence in the world, putting almost 2 out of 5 girls in Tanzania at risk of entering a child marriage and stopping their education.
The government needs to introduce policies that address the underlying issues that resulted in early pregnancies, Gitau said.
Equality Now is calling for measures to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable, help girls transition back into school, and teach boys and girls comprehensive sexual education.
Children especially need to be protected against sexual violence in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the majority of schools in Tanzania are closed, Gitau said.
"When girls are home, especially from poor backgrounds, is where you find families will begin to cause girls to be peddled or married off, even as children, to ease the economic burden on the families," she added.
Equality Now is urging Tanzania and the World Bank to follow through to keep young girls in school.
"This is the very first time in a long time that we've seen the government of Tanzania say something positive with regards to girls' right to education, specifically rights of pregnant girls," Gitau said. "Such a statement must be backed up, and the government cannot cop out of that statement. We call upon the World Bank to ensure that they hold the government of Tanzania to account, and that they use the monies given to them to provide education for boys and girls without discrimination."