In making an executive order returning teenage mothers to school this week, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan has undone an injustice that had cut short the prospects for thousands of schoolgoing girls when, in 2017, her predecessor John Magufuli decreed that pregnant schoolgirls and teen mothers be ostracised from the school system.
Even in a generally pliant society like Tanzania, the move then by now deceased president attracted considerable domestic and international acrimony. While as Vice-President Samia was part and parcel of the Magufuli administration, in reversing that atrocious policy barely eight months into her tenure has made her regain the moral high ground.
As a woman, she was as much hostage to the policy of her predecessor as its more direct victims and the other members of the Executive that were bound by collective responsibility. The time it has taken to arrive at the decision also reflects the internal horse-trading between conservative elements and progressives in Tanzania’s delicate power balance.
By all measures, giving hope to likely victims of sexual violence is a positive move that rekindles their dreams and vastly expands their options in life. It also reverses a gross injustice in which the other party to the act — the boys or men — without whom procreation would have not been possible, walked scot-free.
Locking Tanzania’s victims of teenage pregnancy out of school was a double blow. It is bad enough for an adolescent to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. It is worse when any opportunities for a second chance and redress are snuffed out by public policy.
Coming against the backdrop of the United Nation’s 16 days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence that started on November 25, the timing of Samia’s decision couldn’t have been more poignant for the victims. Every year, millions of girls and women around the world fall victim to gender-based violence. Such violence should not manifest in the form of government policy, as happened in Tanzania four years ago.
Outside the controlled environment of school, a girl becomes more vulnerable to all manner of threats, including unwanted pregnancy. The near universal experience of the Covid-19 lockdowns, during which several countries reported a spike in teen pregnancy, speaks volumes about the consequences of a policy that deliberately locks girls out of school for one reason or another. The sanitised environment of schools is good for girls because it shelters them from the common pitfalls that litter their path to adulthood.
Educating girls and women also has multiple benefits. Women who have had the benefit of an education raise healthier and more viable families. Keeping them in school also has implications for population growth and economic development, since many will postpone childbearing. Educated and working women also help reduce the dependence burden and support the formation and expansion of the middle class.
A lot more still needs to be done for the youth in Tanzania and Africa in general, but returning the girl-victims to class is a positive first step. There are simply far too many children in Africa who never achieve their full potential because of disruptions to social security.
Every child has a dream to be someone in adult life. Public policy should focus on creating the necessary safety nets that enable them to grow into the adults of their aspirations.