Think back to your teenage years—the angst of “fitting in” or of capturing the attention of your latest crush. Now imagine going to school every day under a cloud of fear, knowing that there was a chance you’d be marched into a room and forced to undergo a dehumanizing physical exam, the results of which could get you expelled from school. And then imagine that even after such a degrading experience, the worst was still yet to come.
One thing, though: The circumstances described above apply only if you are a girl.
Forced pregnancy testing has been an ugly, longstanding tradition throughout Africa. In Tanzania, between 2003 and 2011, more than 55,000 girls were expelled from school because they tested pregnant.
In an effort to fully expose this practice, the Center for Reproductive Rights has produced a sweeping documentation of the harm and consequences suffered by girls through forced pregnancy testing and mandatory expulsion as a result of pregnancy, called Forced Out: Mandatory Pregnancy Testing and the Expulsion of Pregnant Students in Tanzanian Schools.
This report targets Tanzania because of the shocking number of girls persecuted under these related practices in the country—which has persisted even after several treaty-monitoring bodies cited the government for these violations. But we aim to have a far wider impact. “[Forced expulsion] is a practice quite prevalent throughout Africa,” says Evelyn Opondo, Regional Director for Africa. “We hope this will have a ripple effect throughout the region.”
Included in this report is the story of Tatu. She found out that she was pregnant after what she later described as “an ambush.” Tatu and her class were told they were going on a school trip but instead were brought to a nurse who instructed them to provide a urine sample. “No one thinks they can say no,” says Tatu.
After Tatu received her positive test results from the school, she was paralyzed with worry. “I couldn’t face my parents, even my mother,” she says, “to tell her I was pregnant. She would beat me. I didn’t have the courage to stand by my relatives and say I’m pregnant. Even my boyfriend, if I told him . . . he could say, ‘It’s not my pregnancy,’ or he could beat me and ask how I can prove it’s his pregnancy.”
Tatu became one of the more than 44 percent of adolescent girls in mainland Tanzania who have either given birth or are pregnant by the time they turn 19, leaving them exposed to expulsion from school—a practice that has no legal mandate yet which is a regular occurrence.
What happened next shows the scope of discrimination against so many girls like Tatu. Her boyfriend’s parents paid for her family to keep silent so both teenagers could avoid expulsion. But the boyfriend’s life proceeded largely free of disturbance once he found a new school to attend.
Not so for Tatu. She went to live with an uncle in a different city, where she tried—and failed—to get an unsafe abortion. She soon gave birth to a boy, but was unable to enroll in a new school because her previous school refused to supply a necessary letter until Tatu explained why she dropped out. She’s been out of school since 2010. Her son is four years old and she works as a fruit vendor.
This report comes at a critical time. Tanzania is reviewing its constitution, with specific attention being paid to the educational policies that have led to the unjust treatment given to Tatu and tens of thousands of other girls
“We are hoping that through this report we will have that robust discussion and engage the people making these policies,” says Evelyne Opondo. “But the greatest success would be to have all of the Center’s findings addressed in the review process.” Evelyne hopes that the report will “contribute to what finally ends up in the constitution and we can see the protection of the girl child and the right to equal education finally enshrined.”
If successful, this report will expose a horrible practice and help make it a thing of the past. And girls throughout the country will go to school without the adult-sized fear of losing all hope for a better future.