KIRUKU: Will young girls have to await a Damascus moment?

KIRUKU: Will young girls have to await a Damascus moment?

As Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was signing the Basic Education Amendment Act into law, placing the responsibility of providing free sanitary towels to school going children squarely on the government’s shoulders, his Tanzanian counterpart, Dr. John Pombe Magufuli, was making a roadside declaration that girls who get pregnant should stay away from school for good.

The seemingly ‘unfortunate’ decision by President Magufuli was made during a public rally in Chalinze Town. Tanzania has one of the highest rates of girl-child school dropouts, making the President’s announcement even more disconcerting. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least 8,000 girls drop out of school every year due to teenage pregnancies.

I would have rather expected a less harsh penalty for offending teenage pregnancies, especially those through rape or traditional customs and who have no resort to treatment within 72 hours.

A law passed in 2002 allows Tanzanian education officials to expel and exclude girls who fall pregnant from school for “offences against morality and wedlock.” Progressive citizens argue that President Magufuli should be spearheading efforts to abolish this law rather than enforce it.

The president ought to know that education is a fundamental human right. The government is mandated to provide education to all children without discrimination. Excluding young mothers from accessing an education on account of giving birth treats them as outcasts and amounts to discrimination of the highest order.

Tanzania unveiled free primary education in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals. This basic human right should not be denied any child for whatever reason.

Already, retrogressive cultural practices such as early marriages and female genital mutilation – coupled with extreme poverty – have worked in concert to frustrate efforts to keep girls in school. Erecting more roadblocks to girl-child education will no doubt lead to an even lower enrolment and retention of girls in institutions of learning. Eventually, this will aggravate the huge gender disparities in most sectors of the economy.

One sure way of fighting the extreme poverty that pervades most Tanzanian communities is the empowerment of women through education. The benefits are innumerable, not least of which will be to lower the high fertility rate that makes poor families have a high number of children, exacerbating their poverty. It has been confirmed in many societies that fertility is usually highest among the poor and illiterate.

Educating women is not a favour; it is a basic human right which any government worth its salt should provide, free of charge. The girls being denied an education deserve it as much as those boys responsible for these pregnancies but whose education is not affected.

The advantages of educating women cannot be gain said; they range from massive community growth and development to improved health for self and family .Educating women leads to lower maternal deaths and child mortality rates. An educated woman is more economically independent and therefore less likely to be sexually exploited. She is therefore less likely to contract HIV/Aids or to become a victim of gender-based violence.

Efforts to ensure gender equality in Tanzania will have suffered irreparably if the offending law is not amended. Gender equality cannot be attained where there are huge disparities in educational attainment between genders.

.As partner states of the East African Community, indeed, our countries should be working towards harmonising various laws – especially those involving social services such as health and education. No country should be left behind when it comes to gender equality.

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