Tanzania said on Wednesday it would allow pregnant students and teenaged mothers to continue with their studies, reversing a heavily-criticized policy instituted by its late autocratic leader John Magufuli.
In 2017, the East African country began expelling pregnant girls from state schools and banned them from returning to class after giving birth, in a crackdown slammed by rights campaigners.
Following Magufuli’s death earlier this year, his successor Samia Suluhu Hassan has sought to break away from some of his policies and on Wednesday, Education Minister Joyce Ndalichako said that “pregnant school girls will be allowed to continue with formal education after delivery.”
“I will issue a circular later today. No time to wait,” she said at a ceremony in the capital Dodoma.
Magufuli had vowed that no student who became pregnant would finish their studies under his watch, saying it was immoral for young girls to be sexually active.
“I give money for a student to study for free. And then, she gets pregnant, gives birth and after that, returns to school. No, not under my mandate,” he said in mid-2017.
The decision was widely criticised by human rights lobby groups and international donors, who cut their funding to the country in response to Magufuli’s policies.
At the time, Human Rights Watch published a report saying school officials in Tanzania were conducting pregnancy tests in order to expel pregnant students, depriving them of their right to an education.
The World Bank, which froze a $300-million loan for girls’ education in protest against the ban, hailed Wednesday’s decision.
“The World Bank welcomes the government of Tanzania’s announcement to remove barriers to access to education,” it said in a statement.
The Swedish embassy in Dar es Salaam, which cut its funding to Tanzania last year citing shrinking freedoms, also applauded the move.
“This is a welcome step for many girls, allowing them to unlock their full potential,” the embassy said on Twitter.
Opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT Wazalendo) said their push to reverse the policy had paid off.
“We did it! A clear example of one struggle, many fronts. Everyone who was involved did something towards this achievement,” said ACT Wazalendo leader Zitto Kabwe.
Covid-sceptic Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his uncompromising leadership style, died of a heart condition on March 17 after a mysterious three-week absence. His political opponents insisted he had coronavirus.
In the weeks after her swearing-in, his successor Hassan reached out to Tanzania’s political opposition, vowing to defend democracy and basic freedoms, and reopening banned media outlets.
But hopes that Hassan would usher in a new era were dented by the arrest of a high-profile opposition leader on terrorism charges and a crackdown on independent newspapers.