Tanzania’s law forbidding pregnant girls from attending school has been cause for global concern, but the World Bank has been the only development actor to respond publicly. Last January, the World Bank postponed a $500 million secondary education loan for the second time because of activist pushback against the ban. Such a protracted delay is an unprecedented move for the bank.
Civil society groups and opposition party leadership wrote to the World Bank in November 2018, when President John Magufuli’s government first enacted the ban. The letter argued approving the loan would be endorsing the current regime’s discriminatory approach toward female education, and urged the bank to withhold the money to prevent exclusion and stigma toward adolescent mothers. Though the bank has a storied history of attaching policy conditions to lending, its hesitancy to come down on one side of this issue is noteworthy. Whether or not this loan is approved is crucial in defining both the lives of disenfranchised women and girls barred from a quality education, and the role of development actors.
World Bank officials met with Magufuli to move the loan forward in early 2020. Two months later, they presented a revamped loan with a specified alternative education pathway (SEQUIP, or the Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program) for pregnant girls, but it too was postponed. Critics compared this alternative pathway to the history of “separate but equal” U.S. civil rights discrimination — the loan document used the term “parallel education centers” to maintain this discriminatory status quo of separation. The Human Rights Watch called for the bank to leverage the loan to lift the ban, reaffirming the right for all girls to study in formal primary and lower-secondary schools.
The World Bank is at a crossroads. In a roundabout way, it has to exercise hegemony to get these girls and adolescent mothers back in school, a crucial part of its commitment toward gender equality and poverty reduction. This would directly counter Magafuli’s rhetoric toward women and girls and his overall policy efforts. To what extent would withholding the loan be a top-down imposition of gender equality norms? What should the bank’s role be in supporting Tanzania’s education initiatives? Is the best outcome for Tanzanian girls the most expedient one, or a longer-term solution that addresses these norms?
Tanzanian girls face a larger infrastructure of discrimination and abuse in school, including corporal punishment, sexual harassment, and even routine pregnancy tests. Teachers have been known to demand sex in exchange for grades or school fees. The 2017 World Bank loan document estimates 5,500 girls were unable to continue their secondary education because of adolescent pregnancy. A Human Rights Watch report also published in 2017 frames it in much more starkly — it estimates 8,000 girls drop out of school every year due to pregnancy. The United Nations Population Fund recorded an increase in teenage pregnancy from 2010 to 2016 from 23% to 26%.
Out of school, women have limited career and higher education opportunities, and must navigate a complex nexus of familial and societal gender norms. This must be understood in the context of Magufuli’s hand in creating a more repressive environment for women and girls, and critics of the government. The postponement of the education loan is the most concrete action taken against the Tanzanian government so far.
The World Bank’s stated strategy in Tanzania is to scale up human capital development, and its position on gender fits under this umbrella objective. Its report on Tanzanian gender equality, published January 2019, titled “The Power of Investing in Girls,” began with a two-page economic overview and a chapter on the current state of the economy before even mentioning gender. It names child marriage, early childbearing, and low educational attainment as the main problems facing Tanzanian women, and frames any gains from investment as “delivering high economic benefits.” The analysis quantifies potential welfare gains from policies attempting to curb child marriage and reduce population growth, and concludes that the numbers provide a “strong economic rationale to achieve these ends.” This is in line with the bank’s preference for quantifiable outcomes-based approaches to complex socio-political issues. A bullet point at the end of their policy addendum notes broader efforts are needed to change norms that perpetuate inequality.
Policy prescriptions attempting to address Tanzanian girls’ access to secondary education fail to address norms that keep girls from attending school, such as safety from harassment in school or family pressure to get married. The second loan proposal is still perpetuating gender inequality just by endorsing alternative pathways because the sorting mechanism is inherently unequal, even if it does help the girls currently expelled from school in the short run.
This brings us to human capital theory, which directly addressed gender in the late 1970s. It asserts women can equally develop under capitalism, and it carries many similar assumptions to the World Bank’s conceptualization of gender equity as increased economic capability. This theory grounds women in the capitalist system, acknowledging institutional disadvantages and focusing on the “technological fix”— lightening women’s workloads, education and skills training, and technology transfers.
Elaine Unterhalter pioneered the capabilities approach, an alternative measure of development that builds on Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s work on freedom as development. Unterhalter focuses on the freedom people have to pursue what they find valuable (a woman pursuing masculine activities, a man pursuing feminine activities, etc). When applied to education, these shifts focus away from more tangible measures like test scores or enrollment ratios to invite a range of other questions: How does schooling translate after graduation? Are students — both boys and girls — personally fulfilled? Does education empower people to pursue what they find valuable?
Unterhalter notes how international organizations fail to consider norms that perpetuate policies like the pregnant schoolgirl ban. In a 2013 article highlighting pregnancy-based exclusion in East Africa, she cites a 2011 World Bank report that mentions the cost of secondary school, concern with early marriage, and preference for educating sons over daughters when evaluating the reasons for low educational outcomes for girls. There is no mention of pregnancy or sexual violence at school, and she states “neither explicitly nor implicitly does this report raise the question of social mores and views about teenage pregnancies.”
This silence is echoed in policy that both the government and major international organizations put forward, and creates what she calls gender dynamics of exclusion. This policy assumes pregnancy is an isolated, unlucky circumstance, not an aggregate of “interconnected gendered exclusions.” Unterhalter critiques solutions based on this assumption for failing to see how gender norms across households, families, and schools connect to create a relational dynamic that curbs a young woman’s capabilities.
The World Bank Education strategy presents policy solutions around school infrastructure, education systems, teacher training, and student participation, but for the most part, it largely bypasses existing gender norms and basic realities for Tanzanian girls. The restructured loan would provide $500 million to SEQUIP, which calls for changing school setups, getting better textbooks, and giving resources to promote a gender-sensitive school environment.
Pregnant girls and adolescent mothers would still not be allowed to return to school under SEQUIP. Instead, they would be provided “alternative education pathways.” Arturo Escobar said the language used in development is more important than the development outcome itself; this emphasizes how top-down discourse renders people subjects of development. This parallel program perpetuates the assumption of Magafuli’s ban — that pregnant girls should be excluded from their peers. It is a discriminatory approach because it punishes girls who are already shamed and excluded, severely inhibiting gender equality. On top of this, there is also a material cost for SEQUIP, meaning these girls would pay for their “alternative” education pathway.
It is important to consider this issue from a cost-benefit perspective. What’s to stop the bank from releasing the funds, which they have allotted to Tanzanian secondary education in any case, to get the pregnant girls back in school, albeit a separate pathway of school? The World Bank looks for rates of return under human capital theory and emphasizes the immediate gain over socio-political or normative change. An argument for the World Bank to proceed with the loan is that the girls barred from school in the short term are more important than further postponement.
The main way this loan falls short is that it fails to consider how norms perpetuate gender inequality in the first place. Magufuli’s messaging is exacerbating larger societal attitudes toward women’s roles. Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, a Tanzanian activist, said his views on women may be shared by more men than publicly acknowledged. She pointed out a significant share of the electorate supported him, which indicates there is still a need to change mindsets around women’s rights.
Unterhalter notes how, through kin and household groups, family and school are not separate private and public places of learning. Any solution outside of the World Bank would first have to consider these relationalities outside of human capital theory and ground it in lived experience and testimony. It is a grand bill to fit, and with the institutional backing of the World Bank, a different loan package could be reached. It is crucial that advocacy groups be involved — and Escobar would also agree — given the capabilities approach’s emphasis on third world scholarship and involvement.
The World Bank will ultimately choose the most expedient solution, which may involve some version of the alternative pathway approach. But the loan will inevitably fall short because it’s still not tackling the gender norms and entangled contexts of school, home, and family to provide an overarching framework that promotes equity through the capabilities framework. The quantifiable solution the World Bank seeks cannot neatly fit into the framework of human capital theory. SEQUIP isn’t sustainable because it doesn’t address the networks of exclusion that run across school to home to society. Although it is not yet clear what decision the World Bank will make, Tanzanian advocates for gender equality are paying close attention.
Note: Magufuli died March 17, 2021, and his vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, is already overturning his strongarm legacy on COVID-19 protocols, which largely ignored public health directives. She is Tanzania’s first female president. Though her stance on the ban is unclear, there is reason to be hopeful — when she served as Zanzibar’s minister of labor, gender development and children in 2005, she overturned a ban on young mothers returning to school after giving birth.