Dar es Salaam — Women's group joined forces on Thursday against Tanzania's ban on pregnant pupils in state schools, saying education was a girl's best shot at success.
In a joint statement, 29 nonprofit groups said that any move to deny girls the opportunity to go back to school after giving birth would only punish them, their children - and the nation.
"Our motivation is the girls themselves, their quality of life and the opportunities they have to progress. Women and girls make up 51 percent of the population so the question of what happens to them and their children is one that affects all of us," the group said.
"Educating young girls brings economic and social benefits to the whole country."
Last week, President John Magufuli said that schoolgirls who got pregnant would never be re-admitted to school after giving birth, and appeared to mock the young mothers for multitasking.
"After calculating some few mathematics, she'd be asking the teacher in the classroom 'let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby,'" he said.
His home affairs minister has also warned activists to stop campaigning for the pregnant girls or risk deregistration.
Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world. According to a 2015/16 survey conducted by the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics, 21 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth.
Advocates say schoolgirls already face multiple challenges to get an education, be it overcoming the crush of poverty, gender-based violence or long travel distances to school.
And many of the girls who become pregnant do so after rape, sexual violence or coercion, said Christa Stewart, programme manager at the global girls' charity Equality Now.
"When education is universally recognized as the linchpin to success, allowing this violence to continue, and punishing girls who have become pregnant as a result, is a policy doomed to failure." She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
More than 55,000 schoolgirls have been expelled from school over the last decade for being pregnant, the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) said in a recent report.
While some wealthier families can send their daughters to private schools, most expelled girls end up doing casual work.
NO TURNING BACK
Zainab Kyejo hauls shards of gravel into piles to sell and make some sort of a living, working under blistering sun with a 2-year-old strapped to her back.
"This is what I do to get something to feed my baby. I got pregnant and expelled from school," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "I still don't know how to prevent myself from getting pregnant."
It is a world away from her old life at Zinga secondary school from which she was expelled in 2015. Now the 19-year-old spends hours crushing stones at Kunduchi quarry in a Dar es Salaam suburb - knowing it is too late to turn back.
"I have learned a bitter lesson, I wish I could go back to school," she said.
"I don't like crushing stones, but what else can I do?"
Underage sex is criminalised in Tanzania, with convicts facing up to 30 years in prison.
In April this year a court in the northern Kilimanjaro region sentenced 22-year-old Daudi Maulidi to a 30-year jail term and five strokes for impregnating a 16-year-old student.
But it is girls who most often pay the heaviest price for underage sex, and teachers say they deserve a second chance if the country is to prosper.
"If young mothers are not educated, they are not likely to fully engage in income-generating activities," said Adelvina Magayane, a teacher at Ununio primary school.
(Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate))