PREGNANT SCHOOL GIRLS DESERVE EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES

By: Kizito Makoye

The recent move by the World Bank to delay disbursement of a whopping 1.15trillion(Us$500 million) education loan to Tanzania, has provoked a war of words between government supporters and human rights campaigners who oppose the country’s education policy, which they claim, discriminate against pregnant girls.

Girls rights campaigners fear that the colossal loan, originally intended to help revamping the ailing education sector, would not be used for intended purposes. They urge the bank to withhold the monies until the government adopts friendly policies that suits the welfare of pregnant school girls and parenting students.

However, government supporters accuse campaigners and opposition politicians of selfishness and “harboring a sinister agenda against the state.Last week, Job Ndugai, the speaker of Tanzania’s national assembly, publicly criticized opposition legislator Zitto kabwe for allegedly influencing World Bank’s decision, terming it an act of betrayal. Speaker Ndugai went further by instructing the Attorney General Adelardus Kilangi, to explore legal avenues for instituting criminal charges against the legislator who had had secretly written a letter to the World Bank asking it to rescind its decision on the controversial loan until further notice.

While denying children the right to education, is by any standards abhorrent and unacceptable, the government has a flimsy justification for its decision to bar pregnant girls —they set a bad example to others.

What does the future hold for hundreds of pregnant girls who are routinely expelled from school, thus shattering their dreams and push them on the edge of survival? Onesmo Ole Ngurumwa, a renowned Human Rights Lawyer and the Executive Director of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), sheds some light on the worsening plight of marginalized pregnant girls while offering some suggestions to bring an incessant problem to a halt.

“Expelling a pregnant girl from school denies her right to development and limits her opportunities,” Olengurumwa writes in his analysis titled “Teen Mothers and School drop-out”.

Guided by various law and international conventions, the staunch human rights defender, sets the scene in his analysis by clearly defining a child and what she/he deserves, while delving on the bigger question of the plight of pregnant girl and teen mother whose rights are wittingly or unwittingly trampled on thus endangering her life and the life of her baby.

Teenage pregnancy is arguably a global phenomenon. It happens everywhere not just in Tanzania. In the United States, they have a qualification to it. It refers to young women who get pregnant before attaining a legal age. In Great Britain, however, it is strictly confined to conception before age 18. As argued in Ole Ngurumwa’s analysis, in the African context, this phenomenon is usually directly related to traditional values of the society. For example, most parents believe a girl who get pregnant at school has ashamed the family. In some cases out-of-wedlock pregnancy is a curse. Such beliefs, sadly, are a recipe to stigma as the victims are exposed to physical and emotional violence.

Under such circumstances, Olengurumwa believes that a child born to teenage mother, is likely to suffer due to poverty, parenting inexperience and isolation from the community.

“There’s a great risk of their children going through the same hardships hence creating a chain of poverty,” he rails.

Bearing in mind the fact that Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, we cannot ignore the worsening plight of girls, especially those falling under the age of 15 and 19 who reportedly give birth at an alarming rate.

It is up to the government, to adopt clear-cut policies and specific laws to protect and defend the cause of pregnant girls.

Our education policy dictates that girls in state-owned school are routinely subjected to pregnancy test and those who are found to be pregnant are kicked out. This is a bad policy. It blindly ignores the gravity of the situation. It is like digging a head in the sand when, some of these girls die of abortion, or complications during child birth due to biological immaturity and undeveloped pelvis.

While it is hard to reckon the impact of abortion as many girls are opting for the illegal practice to avoid family disgrace, in the process they perish miserably.

When girls have the right information, knowledge, skills and the confidence to make informed choices about sex lives, we can certainly defeat this menace.

Denying girls who get pregnant the right to equal education, according to Ole Ngurumwa is counter productive since the victims may suffer from forced marriages or plunge in unending vicious circle of poverty.

“Expelling pregnant girls from school is contrary to the principles of rights and welfare of children,” he argues

We know the consequences young mothers and their children will face. Without an education and strong family support, these vulnerable girls and their babies confront a bleak future filled with barely nothing to support their lives.

I agree with the idea of suspending pregnant school girls albeit temporarily. It is an ideal punishment since it will allow them back in class. When pregnant girls remain in school, we will avoid heaping a burden to their poor families.

“The duration of the suspension should be one year; out of school 3 months at home before delivery and 6 months after delivery,” Olengurumwa suggests.

He called upon public schools to adopt a mechanism and timeline for parenting students to be re-instituted and get on with their studies.

To avoid any psychological torture that parenting students may experience due to harassment from their peers, parents should be flexible to send them to different schools with anti-discrimination policies.

Pregnant girls should be allowed to remain in school. It is their best bet. Such a move will deter forced marriages and let them forge a way forward for their future.

Lawyer Ole Ngurumwa calls upon policy makers to emulate other countries including South Africa, Malawi and Australia that have adopted friendly policies for parenting students.

Citing an example of Queensland in Australia where there is a better environment for parenting students, Ole Ngurumwa urged the government to revamp school policies, practices, curriculum designs, teaching and learning strategies to slot in teen mothers.

“We need to retain pregnant girls in the mainstream schools and not vocational training until they matriculate so that they are able to economic growth and transformation,” Ole Ngurumwa insists.

While parenting students may experience taunts and harassment from their peers, their plight is a sobering reality and serves as a lesson.

One thing that the government must learn is that the best way to reduce the risk of negative outcomes in health, welfare and educational achievement of a pregnant girl is to support her, never to demonise and expelling her from school.

I believe policy makers should come up with appropriate strategies to reduce unintended pregnancies, decrease abortion rates and improve the health of mothers and infants. These are important public health goals that the goverment should carefully consider.

In an ideal world, all women would be permitted to make decision about their bodies and their lives when it is right to do so.

In reality, helping parenting students achieve their goals leads to a better life for them and their children. We should invest in teens, not indulge groundless fears.

Mind that girl.