Tanzania: Court to Rule on Education Ban for Pregnant Students

(Nairobi) – A landmark case on Tanzania’s discriminatory ban against students who are pregnant, married, or are mothers at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights could impact the rights of girls across Africa, the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa, Women’s Link Worldwide, and Human Rights Watch said today. The three human rights organizations submitted a joint amicus curiae brief to the court on June 17, 2022. 

In November 2020, Equality Now, a global women’s rights organization, and Tike Mwambipile, executive director of Tanzania Women Lawyers’ Association, filed a joint case against the government of Tanzania at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a regional court based in Arusha, Tanzania. They are seeking measures to overturn Tanzania’s discriminatory ban on students who are pregnant, married, or are mothers from continuing their schooling.

“This case represents an important milestone as one of the first cases at the African Court on the rights of women and girls,” said Sibongile Ndashe, executive director at Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa. “The loss of education, and low educational attainment faced by girls in Africa has long-term personal and wider societal cumulative impact and can significantly affect girls’ life trajectories.”

The brief points out that Tanzania’s national, international, and regional human rights obligations require it to eliminate all forms of discrimination against girls and women, to prevent and respond to violence against girls, including in schools, and to safeguard the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the African child rights treaty, which Tanzania ratified in 2003, specifically protects the rights of girls who become pregnant to continue and complete primary and secondary education, free from discrimination.

This is the second time a regional African court has heard a landmark case on discriminatory bans against students who are pregnant or are mothers. In December 2019, in a case brought by a coalition of Sierra Leonean and international groups, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that a ban in Sierra Leone that excluded pregnant students and adolescent mothers from public schools, that had been in place for 10-years, was discriminatory and ordered the government to revoke it. The court also found that alternative schools for pregnant students, a largely donor-funded government program, was discriminatory.

The groups, in their brief, provided information about the gendered impact of denying access to education on women and girls, including on their autonomy, development and self-advancement, and the perpetuation of lost earnings and poverty cycles.

“It is vital that girls and women everywhere experience no structural hindrance as they pursue their goals,” said Achieng Orero, senior attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide, “As co-amicus, we offer a transnational perspective that emphasizes the importance of sexual and reproductive rights and girls’ and women’s ability to pursue their life projects, including obtaining the highest possible level of education.”

The World Bank estimates that every year approximately 6,500 girls drop out of school in Tanzania – meaning that they leave school or are expelled and do not return to the formal system of instruction – because they are pregnant. On November 24, a year after the case was filed, the Tanzanian Ministry of Education, Science and Technology reversed its policy and published a circular saying that pregnant girls and girls who are mothers are allowed to return to public schools to resume their studies. Tanzania had been among the few countries in Africa that explicitly banned girls who became pregnant or are mothers from its schools.

“We know from Human Rights Watch work around the world that denying girls who are pregnant or adolescent mothers the right to study in public schools harms their human rights and their futures,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The African Court has a unique opportunity to consider the potential for transformative restorative measures that could help repair the permanent loss of education, stigma, and discrimination faced by girls arbitrarily excluded from schools.”

The legal representatives acting for the co-amici on this case, Nyokabi Njogu and Achieng Orero, are current network lawyers in Initiative for strategic Litigation’s Feminist Litigation Network (FLN). Through their involvement as network lawyers, they have the unique opportunity to strengthen their expertise in effectively and actively undertaking feminist litigation on women’s human rights.

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