Only a few days after the celebration of the Day of the African Child, the President of the Republic of Tanzania, John Magufuli, victimised teen mothers by swearing that during his presidency they would not be allowed to go back to school.
The president’s remarks were disheartening and a setback for the hard-fought gains on women and girls rights, gender equality and empowerment of women and girls achieved by women’s movements including the work done by African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet) members in Tanzania.
Education as a basic right
The women’s movement across Africa and globally has fought hard to guarantee girls the right to quality education.
At the Beijing International Conference on Women 31 years ago, African women championed the rights of the girl child and as a result, one of the 12 Beijing Areas of Action focused on the girl child.
In addition to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the right to education as a basic right is enshrined in several international and regional conventions and protocols including the Convention on Ending Discrimination against Women (Cedaw).
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Protocol on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and Goal 4 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, that all focus on inclusive and equitable education for all.
All these conventions and protocols focus on the right of boys and girls to access quality and equitable education and put obligations on the States that have ratified them to protect, fulfil and uphold this human right.
A particular focus is put on girls’ education due to their vulnerabilities as a result of structural and systematic gender inequalities.
Unwanted and early pregnancies are a manifestation of such inequalities and an indication of girls’ vulnerabilities where often the blame is put on pregnant girls instead of those who made them pregnant or those who failed to put mechanisms in place to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
The Republic of Tanzania is a party to the above conventions and protocols and to some extent the government has taken steps towards implementing them.
For example, the country has an Education Act and a Child Act, both of which aim to protect and safeguard the rights of each child including protecting them from discrimination and providing the right to services.
President Magufuli’s remarks indicating his intention to stop girls from going to school is in contradiction of the laws and policies of his own country and his government’s failure to fulfil its obligation to protect and safeguard the rights of its citizens, especially the rights of its vulnerable citizens.
His contractions are further exposed by the government of Tanzania’s guidelines on how to enable pregnant schoolgirls to return to school and resume their classes, which were adopted by his government in 2016.
These guidelines affirm the government’s commitment to reduce the high number of school dropouts caused by various factors including pregnancies among schoolgirls.
Some 4.4 per cent of girls enrolled in both primary and secondary schools dropped out due to pregnancy, according to Basic Education Statistics in Tanzania in 2014.
While Magufuli takes away the right of teen mothers to choose the type of education they want when he says in his address that teen mothers should go in for vocational training, sewing or farming, the above mentioned guidelines clearly state that the state’s goal is to provide an enabling environment for all pregnant girls to resume schooling after delivery to complete their education cycle.
Magufuli’s remarks could push girls into child labour and reinforce gender stereotypes leading to gender-segregated jobs. This goes against the African Union’s efforts to increase the number of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
When he took up the presidency, Magufuli was adamant about fighting corruption to ensure equitable development. That was before his homophobic and sexist remarks started.
What he should know is that it’s impossible to achieve development without achieving gender equality as various researches have shown.
When girls are denied the opportunity to education, it limits their access to other opportunities including decent employment, leadership and access to information and to make informed choices. Girls who drop out of schools are also likely to end up in child marriages.
Africa’s women and girls are extremely irked by President Magufuli’s utterances. He was “the president to watch” for mostly the right reasons until now. Still, President Magufuli can do the following to redeem himself from this recent retrogressive outburst:
• Retract his remarks and immediately apologise to Tanzanian women and girls
• Provide child care facilities for all teen mothers to allow them to go back to school without worrying about who will take care of their babies;
• Address stigma and discrimination towards teen mothers in schools, homes, community;
• Educate himself on the rights of girls and women and his obligation as the head of state to fulfil them;
• Ensure provision of comprehensive sexuality education as a preventive measure;
• Provide youth-friendly reproductive and sexual health services;
• Hold those who make girls pregnant accountable;
• Implement national, regional and international policies, laws and conventions/protocols on girls’ education, gender equality and women’s rights; and
• Allocate adequate national budget towards addressing gender inequalities.
We at Femnet in collaboration with our members in Tanzania and across the continent are committed to supporting President Magufuli and his government to achieve the above.
Dinah Musindarwezo is the executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communications Network, Femnet.