DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Juliet Andrea, becoming pregnant and dropping out of school at the age of 16 was a stunning blow, shattering her dreams of becoming a lawyer.
“I regret getting pregnant. Had I known how to prevent it I would still be at school but it is too late,” she said.
Andrea is among the approximately 8,000 girls in Tanzania who drop out of school every year due to pregnancy, limiting their education and employment horizons.
The East African country has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, with one in every six girls between ages of 15 and 19 getting pregnant, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
In a push to curb teenage pregnancies, Tanzania’s government and non-profit organisations have embarked on several sex education initiatives aimed at schoolgirls and boys, who traditionally have been taught nothing about the facts of life.
Andrea, who is now 19, was among three girls in her class at Kiwalani Secondary School in Dar es Salaam who were expelled before they sat their final examination because they fell pregnant.
She had been secretly having sex with a motorcycle taxi driver after he gave her gifts of food and cash and took her to and from school on his motorbike so she could avoid being harassed on overcrowded public buses.
“I didn’t know he was aiming to have sex with me in return for the food and money he gave me, but because I had already accepted them it was hard to reject his proposal,” she said.
Andrea’s knowledge of sex, contraception, and reproductive health were sketchy, and she was shocked when she discovered she had conceived.
To try to prevent unwanted pregnancies, an association of female lawyers in Tanzania, TAWLA, has set up sexual and reproductive health clubs in eight secondary schools. With funding from the Swedish Development Agency, the clubs give training to teachers to help girls better understand the issues.
“We believe this knowledge is crucial for girls as it would help them to know their bodies well so that they can make informed choices,” said Sima Bateyunga of TAWLA.
According to UNFPA’s State of the World Population 2013 report the economic losses to Tanzania of adolescent girls dropping out of school due to pregnancy may be 8.5 trillion shillings ($5.22 billion) a year.
A lack of sexual and reproductive health education is one of the main factors fuelling early pregnancies in Tanzania.
Twenty-one-year-old Eva Elias, who got pregnant and was expelled from school in 2013, blamed a reluctance among parents and teachers to discuss sexual matters openly.
“I believe I got pregnant by mistake because I started engaging in sex early and my mother didn’t tell me anything when I started to menstruate,” she said.
As part of its strategy to address the problem, the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training has established peer education programmes and counselling services in schools across the country to promote responsible sexual behaviour.
“These programmes are meant to equip students with the necessary life skills and knowledge to help them make appropriate decisions,” said Mtambi Bunyanzu, a senior official at the ministry.
According to Bunyanzu, teenage pregnancies are fuelled by poor parental monitoring, pressure from peers and poor understanding of sex.
Bunyanzu said the project encourages students, both girls and boys, to openly discuss issues related to their sexuality, while learning how to use contraceptives.
Another campaign, launched this year by the WAMA Foundation and called “Protect Yourself to Achieve Your Dreams” aims to help girls avoid risky sexual behaviour which could lead to pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
“Although your parents and guardians have a responsibility to take good care of you, still, it is your role to protect yourself,” WAMA chairwoman Salma Kikwete said at the campaign launch.
Reporting by Kizito Makoye, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption, climate change. Visit www.trust.org