Though most countries have signed and ratified international treaties that uphold gender equality, this commitment is not always sufficiently clear where education is concerned. In many places, discriminatory practices that keep pregnant girls out of classrooms continue to exist.
It has become a routine practice to administer pregnancy tests in schools in the United Republic of Tanzania, which has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), some 8,000 girls are expelled every year for being pregnant. As recently as last year, John Magufuli, Tanzania’s President, said that no pregnant girls would be allowed to go back to school. The expulsion of pregnant girls from schools has also been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
International treaties such as the Committee on the Elimination of All Violence and Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Discrimination in Education (CADE) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) are critical in stopping this from happening. They call, for example, for a reduction of female dropout rates (Article 10, CEDAW), an end to discrimination where education is concerned (Article 3, CADE), and accessibility to education for all (Article 13, ICESR). Yet, both the United Republic of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo have ratified all three of them. This means the treaty mechanisms enabling citizens to challenge governments that violate these rights are not currently being used effectively.
Education plays a big part in empowering women to progress socially and financially. This is why it is particularly important to guarantee access to learning opportunities to all girls in countries where they are most likely to get married or give birth at an early age. The 2013/4 EFA GEM Report estimated that as many as 3.4 million births occur before girls reach the age of 17 in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. One in seven young women are affected in the two regions.
Progress in this direction benefits women’s own choices, has been found to improve their health and that of their children, and, in the long-run, to bring about demographic transition from high to low birth rates occur. Empowering women by ensuring they stay in school gives them more control over fertility decisions.
Governments and citizens can stem discrimination against pregnant girls. Several countries have taken active measures to remove the stigmas associated with pregnant girls to promote school retention.
Uganda, for instance, took anti-discrimination measures in 2013 and 2014 against the exclusion of pregnant girls, while also aiming to reduce teen pregnancy and early marriage. The results included a 4% increase in secondary education completion rates for girls. Mexico’s government piloted grants for teenagers to enable them to go back to school post-pregnancy. The country ranks first for teen pregnancies among the 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, according to UNICEF in 2017.
Teen pregnancy is a challenge for all societies. But keeping pregnant girls in school and offering them incentives to return to school after child birth are important ways to address this challenge.