In Tanzania, if you’re a schoolgirl and fall pregnant, it could mean the end of your education. Even though successive governments have made a push for girls education, those that fall pregnant are routinely expelled from school, and prevented from returning. Most recently this punitive approach was taken to the extreme when school girls were arrested and may now be forced to testify in court as to who got them pregnant.
These harsh reactions are as a result of dated laws which bar teenage mothers from schooling. They are a drastic attempt to prevent pregnancy in a society where engaging in sex before marriage is seen as shameful, reckless and immoral. In 2002, these laws were updated to not only exclude girls for becoming pregnant, but barred them from reentering school once they become mothers.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Kenya has taken the opposite approach. Girls are actively encouraged to stay in school for as long as possible and steps are taken to support their re-entry after they give birth.
Tanzania’s approach isn’t working. According to government data, the number of pregnancies in girls aged between 15 - 19 continues to rise – increasing from 23% in 2010 to 27% in 2015. This is higher than it was 20 years ago. Neighbouring Kenya has not seen such rises, and teenage pregnancy rates have stayed at around 18% for the last five years.
Despite the failures of the current approach, Tanzania hasn’t reviewed its effectiveness or considered replacing it.
International condemnation over the arrests also misses the real issues involved. These tend to present the pregnant teenagers as victims of sexual violence, obscuring the possibility of girls having any agency over their sexuality.
But teenage pregnancy in Tanzania cannot be reduced to either “bad behaviour” or “exploitation”. As my research shows it can also be an understandable response to poverty and restricted options.
Not the full story
My research with Tanzanian schoolgirls explored their experiences of sexuality, romance and schooling. Their stories were in sharp contrast to the dominant representation of girls’ sexuality as problematic and victimised. Girls spoke about sex and relationships not in terms of fear or passivity, but in relation to other hurdles and opportunities they faced. Poverty, male teachers, issues of respectability and community all shaped their experiences of sexuality.
Schooling in Tanzania, as in other parts of the world, is viewed as a way to secure a better future. Girls are acutely aware of poverty and the challenges they must contend with in a patriarchal society. They feel family pressure to succeed from families that must cover the expense of uniforms, books, examination charges and tutoring. But poor quality teaching makes academic success extremely difficult.
Girls reported various accounts of predatory male teachers who request sex in return for good grades. They declared their distaste of this practice, but for some this assured continuity in school meant the risk of pregnancy is viewed as a price worth paying. Given the odds stacked against them, pregnancy might be as much of a gamble as any.
Outside the classroom, girls also sought boyfriends who would pay for school supplies and food in return for their affections. The important thing was that this happened in secret and therefore did not affect girls’ reputations. But the clandestine nature of the arrangements means that there are no real opportunities for girls to seek information about preventing pregnancy. Using contraceptives or even talking about sex was seen as “bad behaviour”.
It’s important to recognise the power of the norm of respectability. In Tanzania my research shows that it governs all social interactions, especially between younger and older people. Young people are expected to refrain from asking questions or speaking out of turn, and must defer to adults. In school, the girls I met were expected to be simultaneously hard working and ambitious; but not overly self-assured, as this could also be interpreted as disrespectful.
But these social rules makes it difficult for adults and authority figures, who might be well placed to provide guidance to girls, to develop the kinds of relationships that foster honest discussions about sex. On top of this, being a schoolgirl is seen as being at odds with being sexually active because when one is still at school, one is still socially a child, regardless of biological age.
Instead, often with the best of intentions about protecting girls’ status in their communities, authority figures (such as parents and teachers) reinforce social norms about respect, deference and “goodness” which can make it difficult for girls to assert themselves in relationships.
Respectability is a particularly important form of social capital for girls. Communities are vital resources for social protection, work opportunities and emotional support, and without respect and status, women become even more vulnerable to marginalisation and poverty. Protecting ones’ status can therefore be a matter of life and death.
Challenging the narrative
The idea that girls who get pregnant have broken unwritten social rules about respectability, and therefore must be wilful and badly behaved, provides authorities with a rationale for punishing girls and their families for pregnancies. This narrative must be challenged.
But veering in the other direction by describing girls as “victims” ignores that there may be reasons why they engage in risky relationships. It fails to acknowledge and address structural forces with which girls must contend. Girls already find ways to navigate repressive norms about their sexuality. With the right support and knowledge, they may be able to push back against them.
This means support and training for those working with girls to de-stigmatise conversations about sexuality. It means encouraging parents to reflect on how they relate to their children and what lessons they learn from them about relationships. And most importantly, it means finding ways to affirm girls so that they can pursue pleasurable, respectful and safe relationships.