Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has introduced a ban on teenage mothers returning to school. His emphasis has been on the consequences after the fact; he cites their ‘distraction’ from their studies as the reason they are not allowed back. (There has been limited discussion of how these girls got pregnant. Magufuli saying that the men who get them pregnant can go to prison for 30 years, but how this is to be pursued in unclear.) In response, stories are emerging of women who have gone on to be very successful after pregnancy in high school.
Magufuli is not backing down despite the outcry, and the Home Affairs minister has warned NGOs not to advocate for these teenage mothers. It’s being seen as another step towards an increasingly authoritarian approach to leadership.
This is not how Magufuli’s talking about it though. The law that allows for pregnant schoolgirls to be expelled, the one that Magufuli is talking about enforcing more broadly, cites “offences against morality”.
This kind of language has resonance if you know that Magufuli was elected with the slogan ‘Hapa kazi tu‘, which translates something like, ‘Only work here’. Perhaps more colloquially you’d say, ‘Getting on with the job.’ The implication is not only about being pragmatic or productive, it’s also about rooting out corruption and laziness. In other words, it’s a slogan of morality. Indeed, this was broadly how Magufuli was perceived on his rise to power. Whatever you thought of his party, CCM, it seemed like Magufuli was an upright kind of guy.
In the west, we typically see sexual ethics as private, and no concern of the government. Well, except if you’re a public figure I guess, and then sexual misconduct might be a controversy, but not necessarily damaging to your career as long as you’re a man (and I’m not just thinking of Donald Trump.) Oh, and if you’re gay, then everyone gets a say apparently.
But Tanzanians are much more global thinkers, and it could be that Magufuli’s mandate of ‘morality’ extends in this way of thinking not only to punishing corruption, but punishing any sexual behaviour which is deemed to be deviant. After all, that is the language he’s using.
I’m not for a moment agreeing with any of this, either the definition of what is ‘moral’, or the approach of punishment rather than support. But I’m trying to understand what cultural factors are in play here, because Magufuli’s ban has been met with approval by some as well. In this light, it’s not hard to see how this latest step is of a piece with his more palatable (to the west) anti-corruption measures. However absurd his ban might seem to us, it may not be the least bit inconsistent with either his worldview or his political platform.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.