May 7, 2015 / 10:40 AM / 2 years ago

Female high school dropouts given chance to forge new lives in Tanzania

DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rahabu Kennedy was 17 when she got pregnant and dropped out of school in her village in northern Tanzania, crushing her dream to become a teacher.

One of about 8,000 teenage girls in the impoverished East African nation estimated to quit school each year due to pregnancy, Kennedy was stunned to find she was expecting a child, having received no sex education.

"I was very shocked. I had to run away from home because if I stayed my father would probably kill me. I had to join the man who impregnated me and we lived like husband and wife for two years," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The 22-year-old former student from Bukamba secondary school in Kahama district in the northern Shinyanga region said when her parents realized she had a child and was living with a man they demanded a dowry so she could be married.

"My boyfriend had nothing to give them, he was merely a casual laborer with a little income, so my father decided to take me back home," she said.

But no sooner had Kennedy gone back home to start a new life than she realized that she was pregnant again.

"I knew nothing about reproductive health at the time. I wished I could have protected myself. After delivering my first child we continued having sex. That was the biggest mistake," she said.

Kennedy, who now lives with her aunt in Kahama, is among a group of young women in Shinyanga now being trained on sexual and reproductive health while also learning vocational skills as part of a two-year project run by a non-government organization.

Tanzania is one of the countries with the highest rates of adolescent pregnancies which affects girls' health, education, and future employment and can leave them trapped in poverty.

Data from the Unicef showed enrolment in primary schools in Tanzania is close to universal but only 26 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls enroll in secondary school - and many girls drop out due to pregnancy or pressure from their families.

One in three women in Tanzania lack basic literacy skills. Women who did not attend secondary school on average have 4.5 children compared to those who did receive an education having an average of 1.9 children.

The project set up by Kiota Women's Health and Education (KIWOHEDE) and supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) aims to help girls who have left school in Shinyanga which has one of the highest drop out rates in Tanzania.

CULTURE OF SILENCE

Yohana Emmanuel, KIWOHEDE's program officer, said poverty was a key factor underlying early sexual activities, dropping out of school and child marriages as some parents convince teachers to let their daughters leave school so they can marry.

"Evidence shows that parents marry off their daughters while they are still young so that they can get money or cow," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But it was not just the lack of opportunities for girls who left school early that was cited as a concern by campaigners but also their health.

A UNFPA study in Shinyanga in 2012 found about 60 percent of girls who quit school were at a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS than those at school due to a lack of reproductive health education.

The UNFPA study found a culture of silence around reproductive health education was exacerbating the issue as people in villages were uncomfortable discussing the issue.

During the two-year project run by KIWOHEDE, girls are taught vocational skills such as tailoring, embroidery and weaving while receiving education on family planning with the hope they can then find a job and earn a living.

KIWOHEDE, founded in 1998 to promote reproductive health, children rights development and advocacy, campaigns against child abuse, teen pregnancies, and school drop outs among girls.

Justa Mwaituka, KIWOHEDE's executive director, said the project that began last year now involves 2,480 girls from Kahama and Msalala districts and they hoped to expand the project across Tanzania to girls who have dropped out of school.

"We hope that these skills will help them to make informed decisions in their lives. We hope to see them realize their dreams," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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