8 December 2012

Tanzania: Schoolgirl Pregnancies - Will Parents Stop Blaming Poverty?

THE 2012 Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence are gradually coming to an end but the suffering of women is not.

In fact, the monster continues to rear its ugly head, taking its toll on many, including schoolgirls, leaving scars and making them regret the day they were born.

Rahma Haji or Mama Ibra as she is affectionately known to her fellow villagers, was collecting firewood while heading home one late afternoon.

At the prime age of 30, she has been deserted three times by the men who put her in the family way, and left five children behind, which she is raising singlehandedly. "I was in Standard Six when I met a man who promised to help me through as my parents were too poor to buy me even a pair of shoes," Rahma, a resident of Azimio village, in Muheza District, Tanga Region says.

"The man I befriended was married. He bought me toiletries and gave me some pocket money, although I never mentioned this to my mother as I was afraid she would disapprove of this behaviour. I thought I was doing the right thing until this man asked me to reciprocate. He said we should meet once a week at his friend's place," says Rahma.

Three months later, she discovered that she was pregnant and fled from home. Her single aunt who lived in the next village welcomed her on condition that she brings the person responsible. However, the man behind the saga had threatened to kill Rahma should she ever mention his name to anyone.

Rahma kept the secret and swore never to return to her parents. To date, although Rahma regrets being involved in a relationship with a married man, she partly blames her parents for not sacrificing for her education.

"When I look at other women who come from a poor background but are doing well in life, I curse the day I was born. If my parents had cared for me, things might have been different," she says sadly, looking at Muheza landscape as if it has an answer to her many tribulations.

Muheza is a farming district, fertile and blessed with plenty of fruits. Oranges thrive well. It is also known for maize farming and to a lesser extent, villagers plant sunflower. The district is also a mining area where artisanal miners from all over the country make the ends meet.

What is more, Muheza is home to Mlingano Agricultural Research Institute and the Agricultural Training Centre. Villagers keep livestock in small scale and the famous Tanga Fresh Company has never complained of milk shortage. It is therefore not one of the poor farming areas in Tanzania.

However, even with all its riches, many of the district's Ginhabitants have accepted what has become a common excuse amongst Tanzanians to blame poverty whenever they fail to fulfil their important obligations. In the name of poverty, parents have been reluctant to contribute money for their children's welfare.

When schools request them to contribute even a 20 kilogramme debe of maize for students' lunch, the parents respond in the negative, saying they are too poor to afford it. And the same answer is given to school girls for such important items as toilet soap, lotions and other accessories.

However, some girls cannot endure hunger or 'humiliation' and will secretly get involved with a man to mitigate their needs. When parents are rigid and give excuses, girls look for a way out. "Schoolgirls are vulnerable to all sorts of temptations.

If it's not a nice underwear, then it's a pair of shoes for showing-off. Where lunch is not provided, they will look for it and make sure they get it," said Veronica Malle, a retired teacher. Malle rejects any suggestion that entertains poverty as the reason for parents' failure to provide their children especially girls with basic needs.

"Some parents are very selfish. I have lived in this area (Azimio) for more than thirty years but I have never seen a grown up person walking barefoot. But it is common to see children without shoes. Why ?" she asks. The head girl at Chief Mang'enya Secondary School, *Mwantum Issa is sympathetic with the parents, saying those who blame them have no idea what poverty means. "Our parents are poor.

My single mother cannot afford to buy her three children enough clothes. I don't think it is right to blame them," Mwantum says and points an accusing finger at women in the decision making positions. "If only they knew, they could come to our rescue.

A shilling from every Tanzanian they may collect, is enough to boost the welfare of a girl child," she remarks and concludes that the plight of schoolgirls should not be shifted to individual families. "The government should not abandon us just because we are not attending government schools," she says.

However, she admits that poverty is no justification for schoolgirls to fall victim to improper relationships. Whether parents are too poor to provide for their girl children, remains to be seen. However, their failure to be wholly involved in the girl child care is arguably one of the contributing factors to school girl pregnancies.

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