Voiceless and powerless, pregnant teens are on the run in Tanzania

Voiceless and powerless, pregnant teens are on the run in Tanzania
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While Oprah was delivering her recent Golden Globe acceptance speech, six teenage girls were being held in detention in the remote Mtwara region of Tanzania in East Africa. Their crime: they became pregnant as high school students. The district commissioner ordered their arrest in a new crackdown on teenage pregnancy.

As I listened to Oprah talk about the many women who are “empowered enough to tell their own personal stories,” I thought of these powerless, voiceless girls who spent the weekend in the dark dungeon of a lonely cell in Africa.

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What does the future hold for them? How can they tell their stories and reclaim their future in this shocking “outing” ritual that is taking place in many parts of Tanzania? How can they fight against the powerful men and boys who, in most cases, take no responsibility for impregnating them?

 

According to a nun who runs one of the schools in the area, criminalizing young girls for becoming pregnant in Tanzania is the worst form of trauma that these girls suffer. She added with some helplessness that it is the men who should be held accountable. Unfortunately, the social structures in many African countries are so broken, and male power so dominant, that teenage mothers carry their burden alone. Indeed, for many teenage girls in Africa, pregnancy is the latest phase in a cycle of tragedies that they suffer because of poverty, patriarchy and vulnerability.

In the summer of 2017, Tanzanian President John Magufuli asked schools to dismiss any teenager who gets pregnant while in high school. Many Tanzanian gender activists saw this as a form of female persecution. The president was quoted as saying, “I give money for a student to study for free. And then, she gets pregnant, gives birth and after that returns to school. No, not under my mandate.”

Whereas there has been no legislation backing the president’s order, Human Rights Watch reports that government officials have been visiting high schools in the country to conduct pregnancy tests on these girls and “outing” those who are pregnant.

What is the fate and future of these pregnant teenagers who are now running away from schools in order to escape arrest, weighed down with the burden of shame, rejection and guilt?

Rather than shaming these girls, the governments in African countries such as Tanzania should address the root causes of teenage pregnancy — patriarchy and the subordination of women in many African societies. These girls are vulnerable and face painful exploitation, not from their peers but mainly from older men and those in positions of authority.

It must be acknowledged that what is happening in Tanzania is only a small part of what is happening in many African countries. According to the 2013 United Nations Population Fund’s report, “Motherhood in Childhood,” Africa has the world’s highest rate of adolescent pregnancy.

According to this report, rather than criminalizing girls or insisting simply on change of behavior, governments, communities, families and schools should see poverty, gender inequality, discrimination, lack of access to services, and negative views about girls and women as the challenges. This calls for greater commitment to gender equality and the pursuit of social justice, equitable development and female empowerment. When a girl becomes pregnant or gives birth, her health, education, earning potential — and entire future — may be in jeopardy, trapping her in a lifetime of poverty, exclusion and powerlessness.

Many of us who work with girls and women in some of the remotest parts of Africa hear in the fields about mothers who grieve for their pregnant teenage daughters who died trying to procure illegal abortions in unsafe health care facilities. They seek abortions because they could not bear the shame of becoming social outcasts. We see hundreds of girls in shelters run by churches who drop out of schools or have been infected with HIV/AIDS and rejected by their families. Some were suspended from schools because they became pregnant out of wedlock as high school kids.

Deprived of a healthy childhood because of poverty, socialized into a male-dominated society, caught in a world where sexual harassment and abuse, rape and assault are blamed on girls, and denied access to reproductive education and reproductive health care, millions of African girls are living in a society where they have no say about what happens to them in life.

The sad reality is that African societies are not asking tough questions about why this problem persists. In addition, many African governments are failing their girls by criminalizing teenage pregnancy, rather than addressing the root causes of the problem. Governments and religious groups need to work together to prevent the rising number of teenage pregnancies and rate of HIV/AIDS among young people in Africa. Although many Christian groups provide shelter for the girls, they need to courageously address some of the limitations in their teaching.

Celebrities such as Oprah and many of the Hollywood stars who have been speaking out in the #MeToo movement teach us that the courage to speak our own truth — especially against a misogynistic culture — can bring down even the most powerful males.

Sadly, not many girls and women in many parts of the world have the courage to speak out. In Tanzania, and many hidden corners and crannies in Africa, teenage girls instead run for safety away from schools when state officials show up. They hide; and many die in shame and secrecy as victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in a society that is failing them and denying them a bright future.

Stan Chu Ilo is a research professor of African and Catholic studies at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, Depaul University. He is president of the Canadian Samaritans for Africa, which works with women in five African countries, and is the 2017 recipient of the AfroGlobal Impact Award. Follow him on Twitter @stanchuilo.