This article was originally published in the Citizen newspaper on Sunday, July 2nd 2017, available here.
By Stella Barozi
When Deonisia Joseph, 28, looks at her 14-year-old daughter Linda today, her mind travels back 14 years when she dropped out of school due to pregnancy in 2002. Like Linda, she was 14 at the time and in Form Two, just like her daughter.
When Deonisia Joseph, 28, looks at her 14-year-old daughter Linda today, her mind travels back 14 years when she dropped out of school due to pregnancy in 2002. Like Linda, she was 14 at the time and in Form Two, just like her daughter. Deo had her first sexual encounter in July 2002 and when she missed her period thereafter, she did not worry she could be pregnant but rather hoped she would soon get her period again. She learnt she could be pregnant five months later after confiding with friends at school.
“A Form Four girl advised me to drink very strong tea or a mixture of ashes with water to terminate the pregnancy. I did not try any of these because I did not want to die. I think it was God’s plan to give Linda to me,” says Deo who lives in Sinza, Dar es Salaam. Having suspected she could be pregnant, teachers sent for her parents without Deo’s knowledge. They told her father about their suspiscion and advised him to take her to hospital for a pregnancy test. At just a touch at her breasts and stomach, the doctor told her father there was no need for taking the urine test. He confirmed she was between seven and eight months pregnant. Deo is glad her parents did not judge or scold her but were rather very supportive throughout her pregnancy. They enrolled her at another private school in 2004, nine months after she gave birth to Linda on April 12, 2003.
“I don’t know how my life would be like today had they decided to punish me for getting pregnant while in school,” says Deo, vividly grateful and proud of her parents. Deo’s father, Joseph Dilunga says he took Deo back to school after delivery because he and his late wife wanted the best for their children.“Education is the foundation of a good life. When our daughter accidentaly got pregnant, we did not want to punish her although it pained us. But there was nothing we could do since it had already happened,” says Dilunga. They wanted their daughter to at least complete secondary education. “We counselled her and assured her that all was not lost and that we would be there for her,” says the dotting father.
Now a front desk receptionist for a private company in the city, Deo who also has a one year-old son is grateful that her parents gave her a second chance because she now is able to take care of her two children. According to Population Reference Bureau (PRB)’s World Population Data Sheet 2015: Focus on Women’s Empowerment, education is a critical pathway out of poverty for girls and women. It says many studies show that when girls stay in school, it can help boost women’s earning power.
Need to talk about sex
PRB’s Carolyn Lamere says in an August 2013, ENGAGE presentation titled ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend’ that; “Investments in education can have quick returns for families, because each year of schooling is associated with an increase in wages of up to 10 percent.” She says being in school helps delay early marriage and that it gives girls more opportunities to participate in the labour force. Deo and her father advise parents to be friendly with their children and that they should talk with them about sexuality. Deo says parents should be open to their children. “I wish my parents were more open. They used to just tell me to be careful with boys.
They were not so open about sex.” She does not blame them though. It was and is still a taboo in her Luguru culture for parents to discuss such matters with their children. This is the role of aunts. Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver, a leading global advocate for investment in the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women, with a specific focus on maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights says the government’s recent decision to prevent teen mothers from returning to school is fundamentally at odds with international agreements and with it’s own commitment to gender equality and girls’ and women’s human rights.
Neglected population segment
“From a social and economic standpoint, this decision is also shortsighted. By denying adolescent mothers a quality education, the government will dramatically increase the chances that both they and their children will be trapped in cycles of poverty that prevent them from reaching their full potential and hold entire nations back,” says Katja.
A gender and family planning advocate, Halima Shariff, concedes saying that we cannot simply let these young souls ‘wonder in the cold’ without any support as this will only sustain the poverty cycle and deny the country of a human resource that could contribute to national development. Halima says youth below 24 who are the largest population in Tanzania are the most neglected in society as far as empowering them with life skills is concerned. “We as adults would desire for the young people to behave in a certain manner-especially with respect to abstaining from sexual activity and not falling prey to early pregnancy, yet apart for policy documents and supportive statements in favour of youth’s health, we do not provide protective measures and safety nets for young people even though studies show that sexual activity starts as early as 12 years.”
With globalisation and free access to all kinds of information amidst minimum or absence of solid guidance on sexuality issues, Halima says we probably do not have the right as adults, to point fingers at young people’s bad behaviour. Halima says adolescence is the stage in life that requires serious counselling, information, nurturing, reassuring, and clarity on reproductive health issues. “It is a period of making mistakes and expecting guidance and support. It is a time when things can simply go wrong in life, and especially in our context where extended male family members and strangers can take advantage of young innocent girls. And all the time these cases are condoned to save the face of families or clans,” she notes.
Halima thinks the president’s school ban could make matters worse, for most young girls who will get pregnant, and many at the first sexual encounter, like Deonisia may go for an abortion and risk their lives. The weaker ones may commit suicide. On the plus side, Halima thinks the ban may trigger a positive change as it may give some leaders, parents and advocates the opportunity to stress on the need for information and education on sexual and reproductive health for adolescents and youth. This will empower them to make informed decisions and enable them to detect risky environments or most importantly be able to report on any sexual advances or rape.
A societal responsibility
She advises the education ministry, the health ministry and the ministry responsible for youth to consider how best to have safety nets for those who end up becoming pregnant. She says this is a societal responsibility that has to be addressed. Colette Rose, Senior International Communications Manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally says it is far more important to aim efforts at preventing unintended pregnancies in the first place. She says preventing unintended pregnancy is essential to improving adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and their social and economic well-being.
“One important strategy to help adolescents avoid unintended pregnancy is to provide comprehensive sexuality education in schools. Comprehensive sexuality education is integral to ensuring that adolescents are equipped with the information they need to achieve healthy sexual and reproductive lives and to avoid negative health outcomes.” According to her, teaching students about contraceptives can help protect young people who are already sexually active or are considering becoming sexually active from pregnancy or STIs, but evidence has shown that this does not encourage adolescents to become sexually active. Colette says there is absolutely no evidence that suggests allowing students to return to school to finish their education will encourage promiscuity or lead to more pregnancies.