By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM, June 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Campaigners on Monday criticized Tanzania's ban on pregnant girls and teenage mothers in state schools, saying the measure fuels stigma against girls and victims of sexual violence.
Addressing a rally in Tanzania's coast region last week, President John Magufuli said female students who become mothers would "never" be allowed back in school — reaffirming a ban dating back to the 1960s.
"As long as I am president ... no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school," he said. "We cannot allow this immoral behaviour to permeate our primary and secondary schools."
Take Action: Let’s Get 130 Million Girls Back in School
Denying pregnant girls and new mothers access to education is a violation of their rights, said Equality Now, an international charity defending girls' rights.
"Pregnant girls, especially those who have been subject to sexual violence or exploitation must not be discriminated against," Christa Stewart of Equality Now said in an email.
The east African nation has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world and 21 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth, according to a 2015/16 survey conducted by the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics.
More than 55,000 Tanzanian schoolgirls have been expelled from school over the last decade for being pregnant, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) said in a report in 2013. Some wealthier families are able to send their daughters to private schools but the majority end up looking for casual work.
Read More: Kenya Will Give Free Menstrual Pads to Girls
On Twitter, the hashtag #StopMagufuli, promoted by Equality Now and other women's rights groups, has been trending for days.
Irene Masawe, 21, who was kicked out of school in Dar es Salaam after falling pregnant three years ago, said the ban sigmatized pregnant girls and could push them into unsafe abortions.
"Some girls with simple minds might be forced to have risky abortions to avoid shame - or even think about committing suicide," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to President Magufuli, teen mothers would set a bad example to other students if allowed back in school.
But critics said the focus on punishing girls was counterproductive.
"It's unfair to punish the girl alone, as that is tantamount to punishing the victim," Tanzanian columnist Jenerali Ulimwengu wrote in The East African newspaper.
While sex with underage girls is criminalised in Tanzania, parents may marry off their daughters using a special privilege granted by a 1971 marriage law, which allows a girl as young as 15 to marry with parental or the court's consent.
Emily Nyoni was expelled from school in Dar es Salaam after getting pregnant in 2012, ending her dreams of becoming a doctor. She said the president's statement would victimise girls.
"Some people will hate you because you are pregnant or have given birth, they will despise you as if you have committed an unforgivable sin," she said.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)