Beyond Magufuli: Tanzania's teen moms reclaiming their education dream

Teenage mothers reclaiming their dreams

What you need to know:

  • In 2017, former President John Magufuli of Tanzania, made his stand on access to education for girls impregnated while at school - no pregnant student would be allowed back to school.
  • This happened despite the country offering free, universal and compulsory, basic education.
  • President Suluhu has since opened the door for the teen mothers to resume studies.
  • Wamo Open School in Morogoro, an alternative education centre is among institutions offering non-formal education for teen mothers.

Raha* trekked to school three kilometres away from her home in Bagamoyo, some 70km north of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania every day. The secondary school student envisioned herself writing on a blackboard with white chalk, leading a Swahili lesson.

She would be in a maroon ankle-length dress with a cream hijab over her head. On the desks, would be high school students keenly following her lesson. For the three years she attended school, the dream illuminated her way.

Then suddenly, darkness engulfed the way.

In 2019, while in Form Two, she was impregnated by a fellow student who was her boyfriend. He was in Form Three.  Raha was a 16-year-old then.

“I knew my dream was dead the moment I discovered I was pregnant. Magufuli did not want us in school,” says Raha, who was brought up by her maternal grandparents.

“It was the first time we slept together and I didn’t know I’d be pregnant. Never wanted to be pregnant before completing school. I never even imagined that would happen. In fact, I only came to know I was pregnant two months later when my aunt took me to hospital,” she says, tears effortlessly rolling down her cheeks.

Children too, dream. They have big dreams –to become teachers, ward executive officers, lawyers, and much more.

In their strategy to achieve these dreams, there are no risks, and therefore no prevention or mitigation measures. Raha exemplifies their situation.

But who is responsible for “killing” her dream?

On June 22, 2017 at a public rally in Chalinze, in the Pwani region of Tanzania, late President John Magufuli made his stand on access to education for girls impregnated while at school, and their fate upon delivery.

He was serving his first term in office.

He said: "In my administration, as long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. We cannot allow this immoral behaviour to permeate our primary and secondary schools … never.”

He continued: "After calculating some few mathematics she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom ‘let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby’… After getting pregnant, you are done!”

“If we were to allow the girls back to school, one day we would find all girls in Standard One going home to nurse their babies,” he concluded.

This, in effect, was an order to all public primary and secondary schools, throwing the adolescents impregnated later and their parents into a dark hole of despair.

Magufuli did not only kill the girls’ dreams, he denied them the right to education despite the country offering  “ free, universal and compulsory,” basic education introduced in public primary schools in  2002, and 2014, for public secondary schools.

He further exposed them to child marriage, an avenue for further violence against children, especially intimate partner violence, child labour, mistreatment and exploitation by in-laws.

Baraka*, a girl from Morogoro in the eastern part of Tanzania experienced this first hand.

In January, 2018, the then 15-year-old was returning from school in the evening when a man, a casual labourer, in his 30s shoved her to a house on the roadside. She was in Form Two.

“Before I knew it, he had closed the door. He told me he had desired me for too long and wanted to marry me,” says Baraka trying hard to fight back tears choking her.

“He forced himself on me. I begged him to stop but he overpowered me.  After raping me, he let me go. I never shared with anyone.”

In Tanzania's Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act (1998), a man having sex with a girl aged below 18, with or without her consent, is considered to have committed rape unlike in Kenya where such offence is defined as defilement.

Days later, she started to experience "strange changes". She would vomit in the morning and feel nauseous whenever she smelled something she didn't like. All along, she had no clue she was pregnant. Her mother, however, grew suspicious and begged her to confide in her.

“I also didn’t even know I was pregnant. I didn't even imagine being pregnant. So what she was asking me sounded like a mystery,” she shares.

To ascertain her status, she advised her to go for a test at a local clinic. It was a Saturday. She accompanied her but didn't wait for her to do the test. Baraka says her mother sold fish and she was in a hurry to catch a bus to the nearest depot to get fresh fish.

The clinic attendant asked her to collect a urine sample, results of which she would come for the following day.

“On Sunday morning, I went back. My mother hadn't returned then. The test turned out positive. I was two months pregnant," she says rubbing her hands in disappointment.

“I was in utter shock and scared.”

The first person who crossed her mind was the man who raped her.

“I went to the man and asked him ' what do I do, now that Magufuli has banned pregnant girls from school?' If my dad comes back from Iringa and finds out I’m pregnant, he will kill my mother,” she engaged him.

The rapist accepted the pregnancy and offered a solution: immediately accept his marriage proposal, after which she would introduce her to his mother.  Baraka was cornered. She had no other option. She accepted.

When she returned home in the afternoon, she acted normal and kept herself busy with the household chores. Her mother had returned but was too tired. She didn't ask about the test.

At about 10pm, she packed her pair of uniforms, textbooks and a few clothes; and ran off to the man's house, a few yards away. The man had moved from Moshi to Morogoro, some 544km apart to seek employment. He earned a living doing casual jobs in the neighbourhood.

“He called his mother and informed her that he would be sending over a school girl he had impregnated,” Baraka says.

The following day, Monday, at 5am, he put her in a bus and off she left.

“I didn’t want to abort. I was afraid of the side effects and complications thereafter,” she says.

“As I sat in the bus, I was afraid, the man and his mother would scheme to abandon me. I was relieved to find that she was waiting for me at the bus terminal.”

Life at the new home was unbearable.

“I went to the farm throughout the pregnancy to weed and harvest bananas. I carried them to the market to sell. I also herded goats and drove them to the market to sell. It was tough. I grew thin but nobody cared,” she says in a heave of a deep breath.

Back at home in Morogoro, she came to learn later, her mother moved from one corner of the village to another looking for her. No one, except the man, knew where she was.

Law on teen mums' access to education

The laws in mainland Tanzania are not explicit on expulsion of pregnant girls from school or ban from re-entry. Neither do they have re-entry clauses or stand-alone re-entry policy.

But existing laws and regulations give the Minister of Education, school principals and committees the power to expel students on such grounds.

According to Pascal Lujuo, senior instructor of adult studies at the Ministry of Education, in most communities in Tanzania, the culture and religion abhors “immature girls who get pregnant.” Hence, such decisions by relevant authorities are influenced by the culture and religion.

According to a 2020 Pew Forum survey, about 63 per cent of 62 million people in mainland Tanzania are Christians, 34 per cent, Muslim, and five per cent practice other religions. In Zanzibar Island, 99 per cent of the 1.9 million population is Muslim.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most ratified treaty in history. 

Photo credit: Graphic | Eliud Mumo

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is explicit. Under the charter, a child means every human being below the age of 18 years. And Article 11(6), requires African governments to see pregnant girls and teen mothers through school. 

Tanzania's law of Marriage Act (Chapter 29) and Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act (1998), expose girls to the risk of child marriage and rape.

Photo credit: Graphic | Eliud Maumo

Tanzania’s conflicting laws on child marriage and sexual offences

The Law of Marriage Act (Chapter 29) and Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act (1998), expose girls to the risk of child marriage and rape.

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The laws in mainland Tanzania are not explicit on expulsion of pregnant girls from school or ban from re-entry.

While Baraka fell victim to Magufuli's radical decree, in Zanzibar teen mothers' access to education was uninterrupted thanks to a 2005 Spinsters and Single Parent Children Protection Act.

This is contrary to the image created by local and international rights organisations that all pregnant girls and teen mothers were banned from school.

Section 4 (1&2) states that “where a girl is found to be pregnant while still at school, she may immediately be suspended from school. She may be reinstated in the next academic year following her delivery or at any time deemed most appropriate by the Educational Authority provided that suspension shall not exceed two academic years.”

In mainland Tanzania pregnancy rates among 15 to19-year-olds stands at 22.7 per cent compared to 4.1 per cent in Zanzibar, shows data from 2022 Demographic and Health Survey and Malaria Indicator Survey.

In just 11 months between July 2021 and June 2022, at least 42,954 dropped out of school due to pregnancy going by the latest figures from Tanzania’s Controller and Auditor General.

Mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar Island constitute the United Republic of Tanzania (URT) which has two levels of governance.

The central government - Tanzania, which is responsible for “union matters” or simply the overall governance including national laws and policies.

Zanzibar is the devolved government and is responsible for “non-union matters”. Thus it's responsible for its domestic matters, just like the 47 counties in Kenya.

A secondary school in Zanzibar on October 31, 2023. In Zanzibar, teen mothers continued with their studies uninterrupted when late President John Magufuli ordered expulsion of pregnant adolescents from school in Tanzania.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

In Kenya, Country Assemblies pass respective county laws; so does Zanzibar, which has a legislative House of Representatives.

Saada Omar, who heads the inclusive education and life skills unit in Mahonda, Zanzibar’s North B District, says the representatives passed the law to save girls who dropped out of school due to teenage pregnancy and never returned to complete their studies.

A law that has offered 16-year-old Doya* a lifeline.

Early this year, the Form IV student in Mahonda, was impregnated by her fellow 17-year-old schoolmate. He was in Form Three.

Doya says pressure from her peers influenced her to have a boyfriend, and she only slept with him because he assured her of his love and promised to marry her.

A month later, her mother noticed she was weak, vomiting in the morning and dizzy all the time. At the time, she had no clue she was pregnant.

Her mother took her to hospital where her pregnancy was confirmed. Her mother didn't scold her, she says. But she was disappointed with herself, she says.

“I never wanted to get pregnant while at school,” she says in a nearly inaudible voice.

She, however, says she wasn't afraid of failing to return to school as she had seen other girls remain in school until they were due and returned upon giving birth.

Her worry was rejection her boyfriend rejecting the pregnancy. Surprisingly he took responsibility.

Their parents too, had a meeting and they were both summoned.

The parents decided to take care of the child as the two continue with their studies. They, however, put forth a caveat that her boyfriend would marry her if she failed. If she passed, he had to wait for her to finish her studies.

At school, she revealed to the teachers her pregnancy status. They didn't send her away. She only dropped out at four months due to pregnancy complications.

Her mother notified the principal of her absence. During the time of her absence, a teacher in charge of inclusive education checked on her. And when she delivered, she informed her mother that the final Form Four exams were about to start and she would return to school.

When I met her in the school on October 31, 2023, preparing for the exams, she was just 26 days into motherhood.

And her lower back ached. She rubbed it. Rested her arms and head on the table for the back to slant vertically.

To make her somewhat comfortable for the interview in the staffroom, I requested her teacher to allow her to sit on one of their cushioned seats.

Although, their parents have agreed he marries her if she fails, Doya says she is working so hard so she can pass.

She says they love each other and the boy has agreed to her plan of marrying her only after she completes school and secures a job. Doya says he has also promised to work hard so he would pass and have a better future together. The boy still attends the same school.

The school environment is friendly for her to thrive

“The teachers and the students are nice. They help me with revision for the exams. I won't fail. I'm destined to pass and I know my dream of becoming a Swahili teacher will come to pass,” she affirms with confidence.

In the mainland Tanzania, Magufuli dashed teen mothers' hopes like Raha.

 "Magufuli did not want us in school." Raha speaks to Nation.Africa on November 3, 2023 in Morogoro, Tanzania. 

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

Magufuli's order also sent parents of the teen mothers to the den of distress.

“I was stressed - I had put all my hopes in her. She is my only child. I didn’t even believe she was indeed pregnant,” shares Mama Halima*, a single parent hairdresser whose daughter was raped during a neighbour's party in 2019.

She only came to know four months later after she discovered a tin of saliva hidden under her bed. She was 15 years old then and in Form Two.

“I called her teacher to find out if she would return to school after giving birth and he told me it was impossible since Magufuli had banned them. That was the hardest and saddest part of my life,” she says in an angry tone.

But this banning applied to only public primary and secondary schools, often attended by children from poor families.

Local rights groups and teachers say the girls from wealthy families, who attended private schools, were allowed back to school soon after they gave birth.

The teen mums Magufuli denied education

Magufuli's order inevitably condemned girls from poor families. By banning them due to the pregnancy, he punished some for crimes committed against them as is the case of Baraka and Halima.

Education officials were also disgruntled.

“During Magufuli’s time they were rejected. The former President did not like such situations,” says Pascal, the senior instructor of adult studies from the Ministry of Education.

“Magufuli said he didn’t like any girl who got pregnant while at school. He perceived it as bad behaviour. He said they should not be allowed in school because they could teach others bad behaviour,” says Pascal.

To understand the concept of prevention of teen pregnancy and justice for violated girls, I speak to four girls who have not been pregnant in Morogoro, eastern part of Tanzania.

Sala* 18 years

“I have been in sexual relationships. To protect myself from getting pregnant, I had a contraceptive implanted on my right arm. My mother took me to the clinic. She said she knew I had a boyfriend and I couldn't have the power to convince him to use a condom.

Our parents fail us when they don't tell us about the consequences of engaging in sex without protection. But there are those who are raped. Those men who do that should be arrested and jailed forever. Parents too, should stop forcing their pregnant girls to get married to the men who impregnated them or to other old men. Being pregnant is not the end of life. They should take them back to school. And the government should know girls don't choose to be pregnant. They shouldn't punish them yet those who impregnate them go on with their lives uninterrupted.”

Saida* 14 years

“I love singing in church and I also attend church jamboree. It keeps me busy. When you're idle, your peers will pressure you to kill the boredom with a boyfriend. I don't support child marriage. Parents should counsel their children and the police should arrest those who sleep with girls. These men who operate motorcycle taxis are dangerous. They will give you a lift to school and demand you pay them with your body. We should have many boarding schools to avoid these men.”

Taji* 16 years

My mother always warns me against sexual predators. So anytime a man is catcalling me, I remember my mother's advice to ignore them. I don't want to destroy my future. I want to become a lawyer to jail these men who impregnate girls and abandon them, leaving them with a heavy burden of raising the children singlehandedly. It's sad, very sad. If I was in that situation, I think I'd be crying every single day.”

Mali* 17 years

“I follow my mother's advice. She tells me to forget about men and focus on my education. I want to be a teacher. I want to help my mother. I want to build her a big house. I wouldn't want to disappoint her. But if a girl gets pregnant, the parents should just understand, especially the fathers. They are bad when they discover you're pregnant. They will chase you away or force you to marry the men. Other times, they accuse your mother of sending you to get pregnant. That's bad. It's unfair. Sometimes, they are the root causes of the pregnancy because they don't adequately provide for the girl who finds someone to do that but sadly makes them pregnant. And when they are informed of the pregnancy, they act as if the girl is a stranger.”

About four years later, things changed for the teen mothers.

Tanzania's then Vice President Samia Hassan Suluhu (L) with the late John Magufuli at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2019. While Magufuli did not allow pregnant students to return to school, Suluhu's administration breathed life to hopeless teen mothers.

On March 17, 2021, Magufuli died from heart failure. This was his second term in office having been re-elected in 2020.Two days later, Samia Suluhu, then Vice President was sworn in as the President to serve for the remainder of the five-year period.

Eight months into her leadership, her administration breathed life to the hopeless teen mothers and their parents.

In November, 2021, then Education Minister Joyce Ndalichako, issued a circular asking girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy to resume learning immediately.  The circular allowed girls to re-enrol within two years of giving birth, or, if later than two years, enrol at an alternative education centre that offers a condensed version of the curriculum.

Baraka had this news on radio and informed her husband and mother-in-law of her intention to return to school. By this time, she had a second child, who was barely two months old.

They refused. She decided to run away when her mother-in-law left for the market. Her husband was still in Morogoro and rarely sent money for their upkeep. She survived on the little she got from hawking her mother-in-law’s bananas. She says she allowed her to keep the income.

She finally joined Wamo Open School in Morogoro, an alternative education centre offering non-formal education. Her mother is taking care of the children. Since she left, she has never seen or communicated with the father of her children.

 A photo of Wamo Open School in Morogoro, an alternative education centre that offers non-formal education in this picture taken on November 2, 2023. Teen mothers come here to complete their studies.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

She is happy to return to school and nothing can stand in her way to becoming a ward executive officer.

“Men haven’t stopped luring me with their sweet nothing words. I ignore them like nobody’s business. I’m clever now. No one can deceive me again,” she says.

“People laugh at me saying 'what is this one studying?' but I ignore them. I urge other girls like me to ignore them too. Go back to school and focus on your studies. You don’t know what your future holds.”

But resuming learning isn't easy for all.

When Raha's aunt informed her of Wamo School, she was reluctant.

“I was afraid of being in the mix of other students who had no children. I was afraid they would treat me with disdain. But my aunt encouraged me to visit the school and check it out for myself,” she says.

“‘When I came, I realised the students were agemates and some were teen mothers like me. The teachers were also friendly. That relieved my fears and I decided to join.”

She says the teachers at the school “are very good. If you don't understand something, you ask the teacher and they help you. They are very good. They don't isolate you. They are very close to the students.”

Now the teen mothers and parents shower “Mama Samia,” as they endearingly call her, with praises.

“We are grateful to Mama Samia for allowing us back to school. She has saved many.  I'm now hopeful I'll fulfil my dreams,”’ says Raha, who wants to be a teacher.

Halima too, joined the school and her mother is over the moon.

“I can’t even explain how happy I was when I heard the government had lifted the ban. I’m so grateful. My joy is indescribable. I don’t even know what I’d tell Mama Samia if I met her,” she expresses her gratitude to President Samia.

Graduation day: On November 3, 2023, Baraka, Raha and Halima graduated from Stage One to Stage Two at Wamo School. The institution offers condensed curriculum - Stage One is merged Form One and Two, and Stage Two is merged Form Three and Four.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

On November 3, 2023, Baraka, Raha and Halima were all graduating from Stage One to Stage Two. The school offers condensed curriculum - Stage One is merged Form One and Two, and Stage Two is merged Form Three and Four.

The moment was a mix of tears of joy celebrating the far they have come, and sadness, reflecting on the suffering they have persevered.

They cried on each other’s shoulders. They moved around the compound crying uncontrollably. Their children who had joined them in the celebration cried too. It was emotionally moving. I cried too. Being a parent, it’s simply hard to remain stolid.

Education officials foresee an end to hopeless girls in the villages and child prostitution.

“Without this re-entry programme, most girls would end up being prostitutes,” observes Pascal, the senior instructor of adult studies from the Ministry of Education.

“Now if you go to the rural areas, you won’t find girls who have lost hope. They are now happy and enjoying life.”

He says teen mothers who have resumed learning are “very happy and they are doing better than those in the formal system.”

Wamo School regional resident tutor Speciosa Isundwa, notes an increase in the number of teen mothers enrolling from two to three during Magufuli time to seven to 13, currently.

But returning to school comes with its own demons: psychological trauma.

Elinaike Marti, a counsellor who counsels the teen mothers, says the burden of caring for their children coupled with the past distressing moments, weigh down their psychological stability.

This, therefore, makes it difficult for them to focus on their studies, resulting in their poor performance, she says.

In her view, the government ought to invest in boarding facilities for the non-formal learning institutions where the teen mothers can be counselled and taken away from childcare responsibilities.  This, in the long-term, would boost their performance and reduce the risk of them falling off and getting married early, she says.

For instance, in January 2022, 24 teen mothers joined Wamo School, says Speciosa.

By the end of the year, 13 of whom were hosted at the school’s hostels passed, while the rest who commuted failed.  

She says some of the reasons they failed was time constraints due to competing needs of looking after their children and studies. They lost time on the road due to long distances to and from the school, she notes.

According to Tanzania's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, at least 7,995 girls who dropped out of school have since resumed their studies through formal and informal systems.

Government and non-state agencies in Tanzania

During the celebration of the International Day of Girl on October 11, 2023 in Dodoma, the Minister for Education, Science and Technology, Prof Adolph Mkenda, hinted at a plan to collaborate with United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) to conduct a study on why girls drop out of school. The findings, he said, would inform its interventions on girls' access to education.

Pascal said there are ongoing consultations to harmonise the laws on children, marriage and education “so that they can speak one language.”

Unicef is also supporting girls to return to school through its project Every Adolescent Girl Learns, which targets over 350,000 adolescents in mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar Island.

It’s also supporting alternative education centres to accommodate teen mothers in school.

For instance, it has provided Wamo with 120 beds and adequate supply of sanitary towels for the girls.

Daniel Baheta, Unicef Chief of Education in Tanzania, says the agency is currently supporting the government to review its teachers training curriculum. This, he says, is intended at ensuring the teachers are properly prepared to handle teen mothers.

“Our focus is to have all adolescent girls and boys access quality education,” he says.

The agency is also running an Integrated Programme for Out-of-School Adolescents benefitting 300,000 teen girls and boys.

The program supports adolescent girls to attend vocational centres for a period ranging from three months to two years, depending on whether they are taking a certificate or diploma course.

“We also equip them with the right knowledge and attitude for them to work and open their businesses” he says.

In 2016, Rebeca Gyumi, founder of Msichana Initiative, challenged the marriage law. In the same year, the High Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and discriminatory towards girls. The following year, the Attorney General of Tanzania appealed the ruling but in October 2019, Tanzania Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 ruling.

How other countries are re-enrolling teen mothers

Zambia and Gabon

The countries have policies privy to their additional needs. They ensure primary and secondary education is free; the girls have time to breastfeed, and can choose morning or evening classes. They also have nurseries and day-care centres close to schools, where their babies are sheltered while they attend classes.


The country is implementing National Guidelines for School Re-Entry in Early Learning and Basic Education (2020) which guarantee teen mothers and pregnant girls continuity of learning. A girl can re-enrol in a different school and a head of the current school and sub-county director of education are to support her secure a placement.However, Joseph Muthuri, an advocate of the High Court and policy analyst, says the guidelines are ineffective as they are because they don’t take into account the special needs of a teen mother such as who will take care of the new-born. He says without addressing the gaps, many teen mothers will fall through the gaps, defeating the spirit and purpose of the guidelines. On whether there is a plan to review the policy to address the special needs of teen mothers such as provision of day-care centres, an official at the Ministry of Education responded in the affirmative. In a text message on October 27, 2023, the official said there is a plan to review the guidelines “but not for that purpose,” adding that “We are also doing (a) gender policy review. Some interventions can go there.


In Malawi, girls are suspended for one year the moment their pregnancy is known, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report on discrimination of adolescent mothers’ discrimination in access to education.

There are conditions set for the young mothers to apply for re-admission. She must send a request to the Ministry of Education and the school she intends to join, as noted in the Leave No Girl Behind in Africa Discrimination in Education against Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers report.

On child marriage, the country is ahead. On February 14, 2017, the Malawi Parliament unanimously adopted a constitutional amendment that raises the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18 years, for both girls and boys. The amendment aligns the Constitution with the 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act enacted by the Parliament.

Children live by French sociologist's Émile Durkheim 1895 functionalism theory that all institutions (family, schools, government and non-State) work to enable them achieve their dreams.

They are right. The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, the global legally-binding international agreement affirming the rights of a child and requiring all member states to protect children from all forms of discrimination or harm is the most ratified treaty in history.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), as of October 2015, a total of 196 countries out of the 197 recognised by UN, had ratified the treaty. Only the United States of America has not ratified it.

Magufuli’s leadership shows just how harmful dysfunctional institutions are to teen mothers. Suluhu’s leadership, on the other hand, exemplifies how transformative functional institutions are to the teen mothers.

Back in Tanzania, “Mama Samia” has opened the door for the teen mothers, but they have one request for her.

“To our mother, Mama Samia, thank you; may God continue to bless you, may you live long. All we ask of you is to help us resume the formal education system,” Baraka pleas.

*Names changed to protect the identities of the teenage mothers.

This story was produced with the support of Media Monitoring Africa & Unicef as part of the lsu Elihle Awards initiative.