Dar es Salaam — Civil society organisations (CSOs) say they will not be silenced in the current debate on whether to allow teen mothers back to school.
Speaking on behalf of a coalition of CSOs in Dar es Salaam on Thursday, acting Legal and Human Rights Centre executive director Anna Henga said the organisations were operating in line with the law, adding that no amount of intimidation would silence them.
The coalition was reacting to the recent threat by Home Affairs minister Mwigulu Nchemba to deregister non-governmental organisations that would continue to press for schoolgirls who became pregnant to be readmitted to school after giving birth even after President John Magufuli rejected the proposal last week.
Ms Henga said CSOs were not breaking the law by taking a stand that contradicts the President's publicly declared position on the matter, adding that any attempt to register them must also be within the confines of the law.
"We cannot remain silent on this issue...we are fighting for girls' rights. It should be remembered that women and girls comprise 51 per cent of Tanzania's population.
"What we are doing is perfectly legal because we are here to defend and advocate human rights. We will not stop doing our work just because we have been threatened with deregistration," Ms Henga said.
She added that various studies showed that the majority of Tanzanians were in favour of girls being readmitted to school after giving birth, and urged the government to consider public opinion.
Ms Henga said the importance of education for teen mothers was mentioned in CCM's 2015-2020 election manifesto and the 2014 Education and Training Policy. "Neighbouring countries including Kenya have adopted the reentry policy. Zanzibar has since 2010 been readmitting girls as part of a wider plan to reduce the rate at which girls were dropping out of school," she said.
The executive director and founder of the girls' rights advocacy organisation Msichana Initiative, Ms Rebecca Gyumi, called for continued public debate, saying this would help the government to come up with inclusive policies that considered the interests of all groups.
"Matters of public interest require exhaustive debate among stakeholders in order to find the best way forward for all," she said.
Speaking during a fundraiser in Dodoma last Sunday, Mr Nchemba said NGOs that were critical of the government's "official position" on various matters risked being struck off the register.
He also threatened to deport foreign representatives of international organisations that were "promoting homosexuality".
Mr Nchemba spoke a few days after President Magufuli said there was no way his government would allow schoolgirls who became pregnant to resume their studies after giving birth.
Opening the 64-kilometre Msata-Bagamoyo road during the final leg of his three-day tour of Coast Region, Dr Magufuli said the idea of allowing teen mothers back to school was a foreign concept "championed by NGOs and other people who do not wish this country well".
"There are many alternatives in life for teen mothers. They can join vocational training colleges or seek loans and become small-scale entrepreneurs.
"Let those NGOs that are making noise build schools for teen mothers. If we allow young mothers back into public schools we will one day have Standard One pupils rushing back home to breast-feed their babies. We will be destroying this nation," Dr Magufuli said, adding that allowing teen mothers back to school would encourage more girls to engage in premarital sex.
The declaration was praised and condemned in equal measure.