Source: Daily News
TO abort or not to abort? That was the question that lingered in Joyce Lazarus’ mind after she discovered that she was pregnant at 16 and about to write her Form Two examinations seven years ago.

Minister of Health, Community, Development, Gender and Children, Ms Ummy Mwalimu (Daily News)

“I was so mad at myself and felt that I had let down my parents big time for getting pregnant and risking expulsion from school, after all the investments and struggle they had gone through to have me enrolled in secondary school,” recalls Joyce (not her real name) from Mbeya Region, Southern Tanzania.

Her close friends were divided on what she should do. Others encouraged her to abort so that she could continue with her studies and avoid her parents’ wrath while others opposed such a move.

However, having witnessed one of her friends die due to unsafe abortion, Joyce decided to carry the pregnancy to term and the inevitable expulsion from school followed.

Now working as a domestic worker in a Dar es Salaam suburb with two more babies and her dreams of a good job completely shattered, Joyce rues the missed opportunity to study.

“I was naïve and the men who made me pregnant, being several years my senior, took advantage of my situation to have unprotected sex with me after they tricked me with small gifts and promise to marry me,” she recalls bitterly. Since her expulsion from school, Joyce has given birth to three children, each with a different biological father.

She admits that she was not aware of contraceptives then, let alone being able to access them.

Now a single mother after the men who made her pregnant dumped her, Joyce is part of 44 percent of Tanzanian girls who either fell pregnant or became mothers before the age of 19.

Recently Tanzanian Members of Parliament attended a workshop in Dar es Salaam on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, HIV and AIDS and Governance.

The workshop also brought together Civil Society Organisations and other stakeholders. Speaking at the workshop, Ms Neema Makyao from the National AIDS Control Programme, observed that many girls were not aware of sexual health and family planning, hence high rates of teenage pregnancy in the country.

She called for more investments in sexual health education as well as improvement in family planning services so that they are available and accessible to more young girls.

In an exclusive interview, opposition Member of Parliament (Chadema) Ms Suzan Lyimo, expressed concern over teenage pregnancy which, she said remains a chronic problem, denying hundreds of young girls a chance to realize their dreams.

Although the government has enacted legislations that punish men who impregnate girls and outlaw abortion, Ms Lyimo believes such laws are not effective enough.

“We must invest in sexual health education and do away with archaic traditions and norms that undermine our children and prevent them from knowing their rights,” she observed, noting that parents had an important role to play in instilling discipline and awareness to their children.

Ms Lyimo says she, along with other members of parliament have during the parliamentary sessions and other forums, been pushing the government to take a holistic approach to address challenges facing teenagers as well as review legislations such as the Marriage Act that allows girls aged 16 years to get married, with the consent of parents . According to her, girls at that age ought to be in school and not some one’s wife.

She however said her efforts were gradually paying dividends as the Government has promised to review the act and invest more in sexual and reproductive health and rights issues.

In a separate interview, ruling party CCM legislator Ms Lolesia Bukwimba also called for investment in sexual reproductive health so that teenage girls are aware of dangers of premature and unprotected sex such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases that include HIV and AIDS.

She said the problem of teenage pregnancy was rife in her Busanda Constituency, noting that in one school, out of 20 girls in a class, only two completed studies. The rest dropped out of school due to pregnancy.

She said she raised the issue in Parliament and the government is working to invest in vocational training for young girls who drop out of school due to pregnancy to enable them acquire life skills and be able to lead meaningful lives.

“I am glad that SADC PF is currently working with parliaments in our region to raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV and AIDS as well governance issues,” said Ms Bukwimba.

She vowed to continue playing an active role especially in her constituency to educate teenagers on such issues, noting that through collaboration with local authorities a number of students had so far been reached and sensitised.

On the other hand, the Minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, Children and the Elderly, Ms Ummy Mwalimu agreed that teenage pregnancy is a big problem in the country but noted that the government is addressing the matter through a number of ways including investment in sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes for girls as young as nine years old.

“I understand as government we need to do more taking into consideration the fact that 45 percent of our girls between the 15 and 19 age bracket are already sexually active and at risk of getting pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted infections,” she observed.

She however called upon parents and other stakeholders to appreciate the situation and help raise awareness of young girls in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In their research paper titled ‘Teen Pregnancy: Children having children in Tanzania’ published in 2012, Carolyne Mbelwa and Kahabi Isangula noted that in Tanzania, adolescents (15-19 years) have higher birth rates of 116 per 1000 twice world’s average of 65 births per 1,000 adolescents.

They concluded that as Tanzania is among the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa facing ‘multiple’ consequences of teenage pregnancies and with contraceptive use among teenagers still very low, there was need to invest more in sex and contraceptives education.

“Sex and contraceptives education however, remain the important actions for prevention of teenage pregnancies. Although most articles recommend sexual education in the last grades of primary school, the dynamic nature of puberty and menarche among girls in Tanzania for example necessitate beginning sexual education as early as the fourth grade in primary school and intensifying it in secondary school,” they wrote in their research.

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