As reports of the scale and brutality of rape in India emerged in the last year, a secondary practice was also exposed: the high incidence of “virginity tests” by police investigators that doubled the abuse of victims seeking redress. Now, a new report from the Center for Reproductive Rights has directed attention to another, not dissimilar harmful procedure, this time employed against schoolgirls in Tanzania.
The report, “Forced Out: Mandatory Pregnancy Testing and the Expulsion of Pregnant Students in Tanzanian Schools,” said in a sweeping conclusion that the humiliating testing process, which has driven at least 55,000 girls out of schools in the country over the last decade, is violating basic human rights, including “the right to equality and nondiscrimination; the right to dignity; the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; the right to education; the right to privacy; the right to liberty and security; the right to health; the right to information; and the right to life.”
While the report acknowledges that government officials are continuing a decades-old pregnancy testing program to help combat teenage pregnancy, the leading killer of girls in large parts of Africa, the survey also noted that the procedure serves to control teenage sexuality through practices “analogous to other harmful practices to which Tanzanian adolescent girls are routinely subjected, including forced, early marriage and female genital cutting.”
The use of forced pregnancy testing, resulting in the expulsion of girls who refuse to be tested as well as those thought to be pregnant, the report says, is not limited to Tanzania. The Center for Reproductive Rights has found similar practices in educational institutions elsewhere in Africa, including in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The survey, conducted in Tanzania from 2011 to mid-2013, was based on interviews with students, teachers, health care providers and education officials by the center, with assistance from law students at the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School. The individual experiences of 14 girls who had been driven from school were explored in depth. There were stories of rape and of pregnancies resulting from exchanging sex for school fees, a tragically all too common situation among poor young African women, say United Nations reports.
Girls described the pregnancy tests as crude assaults on their bodies, usually involving the pinching or squeezing of breasts and stomachs, often in front of other students. Such tests may be part of an admissions process or be carried out with considerable frequency after a student is already enrolled.
“Many interviewees described this procedure as painful,” the report said. “They also reported that they were not given the option to choose between this manual procedure and a urine pregnancy test. Pinching or squeezing an adolescent girl’s breasts to determine pregnancy is not an accepted medical practice; further, manual testing in any form is not an effective screening procedure for pregnancy prior to the second trimester.
Nonetheless, it is preferred by schools because, unlike a urine pregnancy test, it can be performed free of charge. The use of this method for purely financial reasons reflects the punitive and disciplinary nature of forced testing.”
Tanzania is preparing to introduce education policies that will cover teenage pregnancy, the Center for Reproductive Rights report said. “However, some of the provisions in the draft implementation guidelines reflect a continuing punitive and coercive approach to adolescent pregnancy in schools, as opposed to one based on human rights,” the survey concluded. “For example, the guidelines state that a female student would have only one readmission opportunity following pregnancy, implying that a second pregnancy, regardless of the circumstances, would result in expulsion.” Testing, it seems, would continue.
“The guidelines would further require schools to conduct periodic pregnancy tests on female students,” the report found. “They would also mandate that a pregnant student disclose the male responsible for her pregnancy.” Boys’ education as well as that of girls could also be jeopardized, at a time when national development calls for more education for all.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.