Early marriage and pregnancy force Tanzanian girls out of school

Girls at a school in the Tanzanian archipelago of  Zanzibar

Sikudhani Kimweri was the only girl from her primary school who went on to Bunju secondary school in eastern Tanzania’s Bagamayo district. Many of the other girls had to get married instead.

“There is no value on education in our village, very few girls finish school,” said Kimweri, now 20, in an interview.

Her struggle to complete her education against the wishes of her father and under pressure to help her mother at work reflects entrenched gender inequality in Tanzania, where adolescent girls face many hurdles to their development.

While Tanzania has made significant progress overall in primary school enrolment, few girls, especially in rural areas, complete their secondary education because of early marriage, teenage pregnancy and poverty, women’s rights campaigners say.

Primary school enrolment for males and females is almost the same in Tanzania but secondary school enrolment for girls lags far behind that of boys.

Tanzania’s Demographic Health Survey Data for 2010 shows that among young people aged between 20 and 24, less than 20% of women had graduated from secondary school, compared with 32% of men.

In the same age group, 20% of women had no education at all, compared with less than 10% of men.

Picture: Global Observatory for Inclusion

Despite excelling at school, Kimweri – the only girl in her family – was certain that her father, a struggling mason, would marry her off, ending her ambition to become a lawyer.

She recalled how her father tried secretly to take her out of school when she was in sixth grade, so that she could marry.

“My mother fiercely opposed it and she defended my bid to finish school,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Her parents later separated and her father refused to support her education even though she was doing well in exams.

In neighbouring Zinga village, Zena Mkumbo, 19, sat under a stall with a thatched roof, sifting through charcoal which she packs into plastic bags to sell for 2500 shillings ($1) a bag, with her two-year-old daughter strapped to her back.

“When I got pregnant, I was expelled from school and that was the end of everything,” she said. “I have to do this to earn something to feed my daughter.”
Mkumbo said her dismissal from school had crushed her dreams and narrowed her chances of becoming a nurse.

“I have no future, but there is no way that I could go back to school,” said Mkumbo, distraught as she recalled how her father had thrown her out of home after she fell pregnant.

“I was too young to give birth, my aunt who took me was very helpful during my delivery,” she said.

Mkumbo’s story is all too common in Tanzania, which has one of the world’s highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) one in six girls aged between 15 and 19 falls pregnant.

“Because of low awareness, a lot of girls are lured with small gifts and that is why they end up pregnant,” Kimweri said.

In rural areas, girls who fall pregnant before marriage, often because of a lack of information on reproductive health, may be stigmatised by relatives, campaigners said.

Mkumbo said: “When you accidentally fall pregnant, everybody in the society condemn you as a sinner.”

While underage sex is criminalised in Tanzania, parents may marry off their daughters using a special privilege granted by a 1971 marriage law, which allows a girl as young as 15 to marry with parental or the court’s consent.

In response to the problems that prevent adolescent girls in Tanzania, Malawi and other countries around the world from completing their schooling and fulfilling their potential, the United States launched Let Girls Learn in March 2015.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) says it has helped train hundreds of thousands of children globally and provided millions of textbooks as part of the initiative.

“We know that to educate a girl is to build a healthier family, a stronger community, and, over the long term, a more resilient nation,” said USAID Tanzania’s Acting Mission Director Daniel Moore.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change.