CFC in the News 2014

A war on girls

Those who see nothing wrong with government, Church and other authorities dictating on and interfering in the behavior of young people need only look to Africa for enlightenment (if they want it).

There, according to an article that appeared in a recent issue of “Conscience,” the “newsjournal of Catholic opinion” published by Catholics for Choice, schoolgirls in Tanzania and other nations are routinely “tested” for pregnancy and are forcibly expelled if they “test” positive.

(I put “tested” and “test” in quotation marks because the methods used to detect pregnancy are decidedly unscientific. Alisha Bjerregaard writes that while testing practices vary by school, most commonly it is “a physically invasive process of manually pressing on the abdomen, sometimes accompanied by a squeezing and pinching of the breast and nipples to gauge sensitivity.” Many students, said Bjerregaard, have described the procedure as painful.)

Students found to be pregnant face immediate expulsion, says Bjerregaard. “The government strictly does not want pregnant girls in schools. It is not allowed,” a Ministry of Education official told the writer.

“These practices have tremendous impact on adolescent girls’ access to education,” Bjerregaard writes. “In the past 10 years alone, the government’s own statistics show that more than 55,000 female students have been forced out of primary and secondary school because they were pregnant.”

The statistics don’t even account for girls who drop out to avoid formal expulsion “and the stigma that accompanies student pregnancy.”

The tests and expulsions are framed as efforts to prevent adolescent pregnancy, even if there is no corresponding monitoring and punishment of “adolescent boys’ premarital sexual activities.”

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THERE is ground, then, to believe Bjerregaard when she writes that “the measures are punitive and, instead of providing adolescents with tools to make informed decisions about sex and reproduction, they aim to regulate and control adolescent girls’ sexuality.”

In her opinion, “these practices are not only serious violations of girls’ human rights; they also fail miserably in addressing the factors leading to high rates of adolescent pregnancy.”

Despite the seeming futility of such measures, though, “forced pregnancy testing and the expulsion of pregnant students are policies that receive broad support from government and school officials, communities and families.”

Such support reflects, says Bjerregaard, “the strong moral and social condemnation of premarital sex among female adolescents.”

A judgmental attitude toward teeners engaging in early sex is not unique to Tanzania or even Africa. I recall that soon after the passage of the Magna Carta of Women here, school officials and ordinary citizens criticized the provision in the law prohibiting sanctions against female students and even civil servants who get pregnant outside of marriage. The most common comment? It would “encourage” immorality and promiscuity.

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EVEN as adults in authority profess to seek the moral and spiritual salvation of sexually active girls, they seem little concerned about the longtime welfare of the students.

In Tanzania, and other countries like Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone where similar policies are in place, after a girl is “outed” as being pregnant, “no one provides care or counseling to the student, even in cases of sexual violence—pregnancy is treated exclusively as a disciplinary offence, to be condemned and punished.”

The punishment is swift and cruel. “Expulsion is immediate, and there are no exceptions. All pregnant students are automatically and permanently excluded from the school in which they were enrolled. Once forced out for pregnancy, students are not permitted to return to any public school to continue their education, effectively locking all but the wealthier students out of the formal education system.”

But this is still not the end of the pregnant girl’s purgatory. “Impregnating” a student is a crime, says the article, “and so some schools may also bring pregnant students to the nearby police station. There, they or their families may be unlawfully harassed, detained and imprisoned until they reveal the name of the man or boy who ‘caused the pregnancy.’” In some cases, some girls have been detained for days and even imprisoned for up to six months.

In a bizarre case, one Tanzanian regional commissioner ordered the arrest of all pregnant students, “apparently in an effort to reduce the high numbers of pregnancy-related dropouts in his region.”

But the commissioner’s words, says Bjerregaard, reveal the punitive intent: “I think the practice of arresting only those who make girls pregnant is not enough, we now need to also arrest those who get pregnant; we’ll only leave out someone who was raped, not someone who did it voluntarily.”

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The scenario in Tanzania and other African countries may sound like tales from a dystopian future, as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” illustrated so chillingly. But while in the novel women are forced to get pregnant and bear the children of the ruling elite, in this case, girls who get pregnant are hunted down, hounded, driven out of school and barred for the rest of their lives from further education.

Farfetched? The recent Supreme Court decision on the RH Law removed a prohibition on requiring a parent’s consent before health givers provide RH services to an adolescent.

From requiring parental consent it is but a short step toward the more draconian measures adopted in Tanzania. But we don’t hear anyone decrying the routine violation of human rights, privacy and dignity when adults seek to curb the sexual proclivities of young people.

This piece was originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.