13 April 2014

Tanzania: Dropout School Girls Need Community Assistance

IN some parts of the country especially rural areas, pregnancy is still the leading cause of dropouts for school girls.

Since the old law did not allow young mothers to return to school after giving birth, the trend made it difficult to enable these young 'mothers' continue with their education.

But thanks to pressure from organizations like Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA) and their allies, the government has now adopted a new law that allows young mothers to continue their education at their former schools.

Before the revision of the law, some girls used to study at vocational centres which at least made it easier for them to return to school.

Now there are centres throughout the country that they can be used to train young mothers interested in continuing with their education. Such trainings are funded thanks to family support: the girls learn a trade (such as hairdressing or dressmaking) or take refresher courses in the evening.

Halima (18), now takes classes at Mwenge Centre, but lives with her aunt. The mother of little Ashura, she fell pregnant with the child of her friend and neighbour in 2013.

"He told me that he loved me. Since I was waiting for the results of last year's examinations I thought it was a good time to have a relationship," she told this reporter recently.

Currently, Ashura is taking Qualifying Test (QT) courses at the centre, and she hopes to sit for her form two national secondary examination in October this year. However, despite the best intentions, the return to school is difficult, especially without family support.

Manka (16), became pregnant when she was in her final year of ordinary level secondary education. "I was in form four when I was forced to drop out because I got pregnant," she recalls.

"I want to go to take QT studies, but it is difficult because I have nobody at home to look after my daughter," she says. Early pregnancy is not a new problem in many parts of this country especially in rural areas.

The trend has now sparked national debate, to find out better ways of addressing the problem.

Three years ago, during a National Assembly session, an official from the opposition Civic United Front (CUF), challenged the then Deputy Minister of Education and Vocational Training, Mwantumu Mahiza, to explain the measures taken by the government to reduce the number of girls falling pregnant at school.

Ms Mahiza who is now Coast Regional Commissioner said that her ministry was preparing new laws and policies to address the issue, adding that six per cent of girls leave school each year due to pregnancy.

A lot has been done since then to give victims of early pregnancies chances to continue with their studies. Recent data released by the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP) says that twenty-five per cent of Tanzanian women under 18 are already mothers.

According to Ministry of Education statistics, 28,600 girls left school between 2004 and 2008 because they were pregnant. At secondary level the figures were alarming; in 2007 one in five girls fell pregnant and did not finish school.

One of the main reasons for the large number of pregnant girls is that many have unprotected sex and lack access to contraceptives. Some religious and traditional beliefs bar them from accessing contraceptives.

Moreover, there is the social context. For example, in Shinyanga Region (western Tanzania), parents threaten to throw their daughters out of their homes if they attend high school.

In areas like Mtwara, recent media reports said that some parents ask their daughters to fail their studies so they can marry as soon as possible. In some remote areas of the country, children as young as 11 have been reported pregnant.

Some blame the Marriage Act of 1971, which legalised marriage between a man and a 14-year-old-girl. For some parents the dowry they receive when marrying their daughter is a significant source of income and that is why they end up marrying their daughters at tender ages.

Tanzania's population is 75 per cent rural where lowincome parents often do not have the means to send their children to secondary schools. When they finish primary school at 13 or 14, girls may be forced to stay at home in the village,and that could be reasons for falling pregnant.

A number of parents fail to take their children's education seriously. We need to educate them on better ways of making sure that their daughters find ways to acquire further education.

Nevertheless, the issue is taken very seriously by officials as the majority of these teenagers face challenges for which they are unprepared. "I thank the government for adopting the new law in January 2010 which allows young mothers back into their old schools.

This was strictly forbidden before now. I urge schools which still do not accept girls returning after childbirth to do so because we are in problems. We need education," says Juliana Augustine (19), a mother of one.

In addition to the risk of contracting HIV during sex, these girls also face the risk of complications during birth. TGNP reports say that three-quarters of births in Tanzania take place at home without proper care and treatment.

Juliana was pregnant when she dropped out of school in Moshi last year and her baby was born premature with heart problems. She spent four months in Mawenzi hospital taking care of her child but thanks to God she is now studying at a QT training centre located at Mwenge in Dar es Salaam.

The child's father who used to be a charcoal vendor has disappeared without a trace. Abandonment is a frequent occurrence for these girls, and many of them are too young to be mothers and are left stranded by their baby's fathers with no means of supporting themselves.

Sometimes parents help their daughters when they can, but some do not hesitate to kick them out of their homes. As a consequence; many young girls with very small children sell fruit and vegetables by the roadside, forced to fend for themselves.

Organizations like TAMWA have done a lot in sensitizing the society to accept girls falling pregnant at a tender age. TAMWA and allies are implementing Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment (GEWE II), a programme that focuses on tackling issues of gender based violence by advocacy, but also providing humanitarian aid to the victims like dropout school girls.

Upon completion, GEWE II is expected to have contributed to the improvement of the living conditions of women in Tanzania, through support that promotes gender equality and women empowerment.

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