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Focus still needed to address early pregnancies in schools

THE time was around midday, the place was at the edge of Kisarawe highway, a few miles from Gongo la Mboto on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.

The teenage girl sat huddled beside a small boy, probably about three years old. When I approached the two, at first I did not realise that the girl was waiting for customers for her tomatoes which were neatly arranged beside her.

The girl, sixteen-year old Lucy Bwile, was seated next to her son Elisante (not the real name), and she spends the day at the area selling her goods (tomatoes) to passersby to make a living.

“This is where I sell tomatoes to get money to buy food to feed my boy and also for paying rent,” she told this reporter.

The desperate looking teen mother engaged in selling tomatoes as soon as she dropped out of school while still in primary school because of pregnancy.

Her childhood dream of becoming a nurse was shattered and cut short by a lie from a man she strongly believed loved her. “I dropped out of school in 2014 because of pregnancy that I had from my boyfriend in town,” the teen mother recalls, and adds, “By then I was in standard six --- I was sent back home by the head teacher.”

“My mother told me to start selling tomatoes so that I can make a living for myself because she was not able to provide for me while I was staying at home due to the pregnancy,” she recounts.

Her boyfriend who was living in town abandoned her as soon as she announced that she was pregnant. “I told him about the pregnancy, but he refused to listen to me, threatening to hurt me if I dared to mention him as the man responsible.

Lucy is now facing the reality of getting pregnancy at a young age, with the consequences involving dropping out of school.

“My mother does not provide anything for me and my baby, so I have to sell tomatoes to get money for buying food for the baby,” she says.

Lucy is one among thousands of girls in Kisarawe district and elsewhere in the country whose childhood dreams were cut short due to teen pregnancies, preventing them from schooling.

According to a 2016/17 Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 8,000 girls drop out of school every year due to pregnancy.

Human Rights Watch found that school officials conduct regular compulsory pregnancy tests. In most cases, girls are not allowed to continue with their education after giving birth, and this is mainly due to lack of community support or access to early childhood services. Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world.

According to a 2015/16 survey conducted by the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics, 21 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth.

“If given a chance to continue with my education, I will because this life I’m living now is not good for my future and the baby,” says Lucy.

Recently, President John Magufuli banned pregnant and young mothers from schools on the basis that the government was not ready to sponsor education for girls who become pregnant while in school.

A survey in Kisarawe district reveals that schoolgirls who fall pregnant are immediately expelled from school following the government directive of preventing pregnant and young mothers from going back to school.

“We do conduct pregnancy tests for girls every month, the aim is to ensure that we do not accommodate a pregnant girl in school,” says one of the teachers in one of the schools in Kisarawe.

Girls’ rights advocates in the country say that any move to deny girls the opportunity to go back to school after giving birth would only punish them, their children and the nation.

“Our motivation is the girls themselves, their quality of life and the opportunities they have to progress. Women and girls make up 51 per cent of the population, so the question of what happens to them and their children is one that affects all of us,” says a statement by a group of women and girl activists.

Clamencia Hamza, a mother of four says in Kisarawe district, schoolgirls fall pregnant due to various challenges they encounter in the community as well as in schools.

“Walking long distances to school is one among the main challenges...the other reason is lack of dormitories to accommodate girls in schools,” she says.

She calls on parents to closely monitor and supervise their daughter’s behaviour while in school in order to help them speak up about their needs.

“As parents, we have full responsibility to safeguard our daughters’ interests, we should always be close to them and let them raise up their voices on challenges and other things they encounter while in schools as well as at home,” she adds.

One Christopher Saliboko calls on the government to consider establishing schools that will accommodate pregnant teen girls with special cases.

“Barring every pregnant girl from school is not a good idea, because some of the girls are raped and others are forced into sexual relationships.

And all this is because of challenges they encounter while in schools,” he says. Article 11 (2) of the country’s Constitution states that everyone has the right to get education and every citizen will be free to seek education in any fields he/she likes.

Kisarawe District Executive Director, Mr Musa Gama says that the rate of girls getting pregnancy is reducing following government initiatives put across the country to control girls from being trapped in the teen pregnancy pool. “Cases of pregnant girls are reducing.

This is because of initiatives that we have put in place to guard against perpetrators behind pregnancies of teenage girls,” says Mr Gama.

During the International Day of the Girl Child last year, Tanzania’s Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children directed all primary and secondary schools across the country to establish help desks dedicated to preventing early pregnancy.

As part of a national campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy, the help desks provide counselling, reproductive health information and referrals to clinics.

Schools are also required to report the status of student pregnancies, early marriages, or other related issues to the ministry and local government leadership in order to ensure that these challenges are visible and addressed.

The Health Minister, Ummy Mwalimu launched the campaign in Mara region on Advance Family Planning’s (AFP) focus areas. She stated, “In the next six months, I want to see schools devote teachers to attend to teenage pregnancy issues; the government is ready to train teachers to undertake this task [if needed].

Schools in Tanzania do not provide standalone comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education; girls have little or unreliable information on how to prevent pregnancy.

And if they become pregnant, girls are not allowed to remain in school. This year, AFP local partners Tanzania Youth and Adolescent Reproductive Health (TAYARH) and Tanzania Communication and Development Centre (TCDC) each focused their advocacy on addressing the country’s high teenage pregnancy rate.

The current rate of 27 per cent (Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey 2015-16) rose sharply from 23 per cent in 2010.

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Author: ANNE ROBI

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