Foreign donors should freeze funding to Tanzania to press the government to scrap policies violating the rights of girls and sexual minorities, campaigners said on Thursday, a day after the World Bank and Denmark said they were withholding aid.
The World Bank pulled the plug on a planned $300 million education loan to the east African nation, citing concerns over a government policy which bans pregnant girls from attending school, amongst other things.
Denmark – Tanzania’s second biggest donor – said it would withhold $10 million in aid over rights abuses and “unacceptable homophobic comments” by a senior official.
“This is a bold positive statement by the World Bank that should be emulated by other big development partners in Tanzania,” Evelyne Opondo, Africa director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We already have too many girls forced out of formal education, robbed of their full potential and confined to the cycle of poverty. The things the World Bank is asking the government to look at are all within their power to address.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation was not able to reach Tanzanian government officials for immediate comment.
Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world – around 27 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 are pregnant, according to latest government data.
Campaigners attribute the high rates to widespread sexual violence and poverty, which forces girls to exchange sex for school fees, food and shelter, and say authorities’ recent actions have worsened their plight.
In June last year, President John Magufuli voiced support for a ban on pregnant girls and teenage mothers in state schools, which dates back to 1961, describing their behavior as “immoral”.
Since then, pregnant schoolgirls have been arrested and child rapists pardoned – sparking alarm among activists, who say minors should be treated as victims, not criminals.
Since Magufuli came to power in 2015, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights groups say sexual minorities have also faced increased threats to their rights and security.
Although a law banning gay sex is rarely enforced, in recent years, civil society organizations supporting gay people have been shut down and activists arrested in Tanzania. Authorities have also suspended HIV/AIDS prevention programs for gay men.
Denmark’s announcement came weeks after the administrative chief of Tanzania’s main city Dar es Salaam called on the public to report names of gay people for arrest. The move prompted the European Union’s ambassador to Tanzania be recalled.
Tanzania’s foreign ministry later distanced itself from the anti-gay crackdown, saying it did not represent the national government’s position.
Human rights groups said the issue of withholding aid was complicated as there was a concern that it would adversely affect those most vulnerable, but added that the Tanzanian government was unwilling to engage.
“The government has not been receptive to any type of dialogue, including engagements by other parties, calls by other organizations, and bilateral discussions by different actors – over the issue of sexual minorities,” said Judy Gitau, a lawyer with the campaign group Equality Now.
“I think it therefore is in order for different actors, including the donor community, to leverage sufficient pressure to call on Tanzania to uphold its obligations and ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”