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Sentencing the Economy: The Costs of Expelling Adolescent Mothers

Analysis Taryn Couture, Research Associate

On June 19th the President of Tanzania, John Magufuli said “As long as I am president…no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school… after getting pregnant, you are done.” This statement is in line with Tanzania’s 2002 law that allows girls to be expelled from school for “offences against morality”. These restrictions to education for pregnant adolescents are widely accepted, including in other sub-Saharan African countries such a Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea. But expelling adolescent girls from primary or secondary school due to pregnancy can have devastating and irreversible outcomes including increased health and safety risks for the girl, and significant economic impacts for the individual girl, her family and the country.

Girls who are expelled from school due to pregnancy can face stigma and shame, including from their own family who, due to cultural pressure, may force their pregnant children out of their homes and onto the streets. Girls who are living on the streets are at an increased risk of being trafficked or forced into abusive employment situations. Girls who are unable to finish their schooling also tend to be excluded from the traditional workforce and are therefore more likely to turn to commercial and transactional sex work to care for themselves and their newborn child. Without an education and limited traditional job options adolescent girls also find their income potential limited. PAI has estimated that if girls in Tanzania were able to complete secondary school they would earn 64% more than girls who were required to leave earlier.

A loss of education, and therefore income for adolescents due to pregnancy has negative impacts on the household welfare. Mothers who complete secondary education can contribute to the family’s purchasing power including the ability to invest in the family’s human capital, such as education and health care for their children. However, a loss of education by the head of the household could translate into a life of poverty for the family, and without the resources to provide for their children a cycle of poverty is more likely to be established.  By ensuring that teen mothers have access to an education the country will be supporting efforts to achieve their poverty reduction goals, including the country’s commitment to the sustainable development goal of ending “poverty in all its forms everywhere.”

Refusing to allow pregnant girls to return to school after giving birth also has a significant impact on the country’s economy. Evidence shows that when girls and women are not able to participate in the formal labor force, low-income countries see a 9% loss to their GDP over the woman’s lifetime, while low-middle income countries see a 12% loss. Such an impact on a country’s GDP could be the difference between a thriving, productive economy and a country that is struggling to provide for its people.

Instead of focusing on punishing girls for becoming pregnant, governments should find ways to support adolescent moms to stay in school. This includes allowing adolescent girls and adolescent mothers to have a seat at the table when making policies. For example, PAI has been working with the Women Promotion Centre (WPC), a youth-led organization in Kenya, to support their efforts to end forced pregnancy tests and subsequent school expulsion in Kibera. Partially because of WPC’s advocacy, in February 2017 Kenya’s Parliament started debating a bill to help pregnant girls stay in school.

In addition to supporting policies that keep adolescent mothers in school, governments should focus on increasing access to sexual information and services to adolescents.  Providing comprehensive sex education and quality youth-friendly family planning services ensures that a young woman has control over her body and the choice of when to get pregnant–all of which gives her power over her future.  Increased resources for quality youth-friendly contraceptive services and comprehensive sexuality education are more likely to have positive economic benefits. By investing in family planning more broadly governments save $2-$6 for every dollar invested. These benefits could be even larger if governments invest in youth-friendly family planning services due to the educational and productivity benefits.

Ultimately, the country’s economy pays the price when there are policies in place that prohibit girls from returning to school after becoming pregnant. Refusing to educate adolescent mothers negatively impacts the country’s GDP and hurts future earning potential for the girls who are expelled.

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