Letters from TZ

Send your girl child to school

Word is that Tanzania’s Education and Vocational Training Policy is being revised to enable the re-admission of school girls who drop out of school because they are pregnant. While crafting the re-admission policy however, stakeholders will make provisions to ensure that it does not “encourage” students who have not conceived yet, to go ahead and make babies. Some female legislators are blaming student pregnancies on rape and early marriage, arguing that as the girls are re-admitted, the boys/men/parents should face stiff penalties for putting them in that position in the first place. It is true that some girls fall pregnant because they were raped and/or forced into early marriage. Others find themselves unable to negotiate safe sex.

To be clear, rape is a criminal offence. As is forcing a child to get married before she is deemed eligible by the law. Instances where girls find themselves unable to demand safe sex, or unaware that they should are unfortunate. But it is also true that some make the decision to have sex without any undue influence. Some girls have all the knowledge a girl would need to make an informed decision about sex, and with that knowledge, they make the decision to have it.

The point however, is not that sex is being had. The point is that girls are getting pregnant. And those pregnancies are disrupting their education. What then should be the focus of policy makers – the sex or the pregnancy? Obviously, if they can lower the incidence of teenage sex, that would automatically lower the incidence of teenage pregnancy – the operative word here being ‘lower’. It is not within the government’s power to stop teenagers, or young adults who are still in high school, from having sex altogether. What they can do is endorse safe sex. They can also make sure that those girls who have sex and get pregnant, are able to re-enter the school system and complete their basic education. There really is no reason to dilly-dally on the policy for that. No good reason whatsoever.

Talk of creating a policy that does not “encourage” girls to get pregnant is misplaced. It implies that some girls will be so reckless with their sexuality as to fall pregnant on purpose, just because they will be allowed back into school. It also implies that children having children, and going to school at the same time, is so easy that all a girl needs is a little encouragement.

With regard to the policy itself, some stakeholders have suggested that girls who drop out of school to deliver, should only be allowed back into the system if they can be admitted to “special schools”. So, not only will these girls have to face the stigma of being mothers before their time within their own local communities, but their childhood acts of indiscretion will now become a matter of public record. Imagine the horror, if they were victims of sexual violence or the unwilling participants in forced marriages. Those “special schools” would be an ever-present reminder of their trauma. And what of the girls who decide to put their children up for adoption? Would they also be confined to these “special schools”? The policy should be clear that students who fall pregnant will have the option to return to school after they deliver, should they choose to do so. If they will only feel comfortable attending “special schools” then so be it. But if they want to return to the mainstream, they should be able to do that too. Of paramount importance here is the education of girls, not our societal hang ups about their sexuality.

No Facebook for Ugandans

So. Predictably, several states in the Northern hemisphere are none to happy with Uganda’s proposed ‘anti-gay’ legislation. In an article on the Huffington Post, it is reported that some world leaders, including US President Barrack Obama who described it as “odious”, have condemned the bill. Sweden and Norway have threatened to cut foreign aid to Uganda if the bill becomes law. Activists are calling upon Citibank and Barclays, both of whom have a large corporate presence in Uganda, to publicly condemn the so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill. The proposed law has since withdrawn the ‘kill’ clause, which would have seen those guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” facing the death penalty. The bill’s original wording proposed the death penalty for cases where HIV-infected homosexuals had sex, where gay people had sex with minors or the disabled, and where gays were discovered having sex for the second time.

Rumour now has it that Facebook intends to bar Ugandans from accessing the popular social networking site should their Parliament pass the bill into law. Wow. Really? How long has the war in the North been going on? How many billions of taxpayer shillings have been lost to corruption? And when was the last time the country had a free and fair election? And a section of the international community wants to withdraw its support over gay rights? Something is wrong with this picture.