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In 2001, under pressure from international stakeholders, the Tanzanian government established the Primary Education Development Program (PEDP), which made school compulsory for 7- to 15-year-olds and officially abolished mandatory primary school fees as a means of increasing enrollment.

On some level, the program seems to be working. Primary school enrollment did increase from 4.4 million in 2000 to 8.4 million by 2009.[1] But these numbers are misleading. The on-the-ground reality is, many Tanzanian children—roughly 15-20 percent of those under the age 15—do not regularly attend primary school, even if they initially enrolled.[2] And of those that do, only a fraction go on to secondary school, which is the level of education most conducive to becoming an active, engaged citizen capable of precipitating community-wide change. According to the Camfed Tanzania website, Tanzania has the lowest secondary school enrollment rate in Africa, which is concerning given that across sub-Saharan Africa, only 17 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary school.[3] In the Tarime district in the Mara region of Tanzania, where food insecurity is a legitimate concern[4] and life can be altogether difficult, the problem is particularly dire.

The reason for the disparity between primary school enrollment rates and actual educational participation and achievement is nuanced and multifold. At the heart of the problem is the fallacy that primary school is truly free for Tanzanian families. According to one study, the cost of school actually increased in Tanzania between 2000 and 2006, “well above the expected increase in costs due to inflation.”[5] It seems that although the official enrollment fee was eliminated by state decree, in some cases at least, students’ families are still required by local administrators to make contributions toward food, school supplies, security, testing, uniforms, and building and renovation projects. For many parents, the mandatory contributions are prohibitively expensive, and when they cannot make the contribution expected of them, their children are denied schooling.[6] Moreover, given Tanzania’s staunchly patriarchal leanings, too often when a family can only afford to send one child to school, a girl’s education is sacrificed before her male sibling’s. In these cases, a girl must drop out or pay her own way.[7]

Studies suggest that the opportunity cost of losing a child’s labor is also a significant factor in determining whether or not a Tanzanian child will attend/complete school.[8] Unfortunately for girls, the value of their roles as caregivers, farmhands, cattle tenders, firewood collectors, house cleaners, water fetchers, and marketplace vendors makes their education more costly to families.[9] It is a cultural expectation in Tarime and elsewhere in Tanzania that girls dedicate the vast majority of their waking hours to completing hard labor and chores in service of the family, with little or no help from men and boys.

One young girl put it this way:

Life here in Tarime is really hard as all the work is being done by us women, farming, taking care of cattle, cooking, etc. It is really difficult. Take my example; I was married at 15 years, and it’s been 3 years now, and I have no children, but I am so tired of this life.[10]

Poverty, pregnancy, ill-health, lack of facilities, travel distance, and forced withdrawal by parents are other reasons Tanzanian girls cite as obstacles to reaching their desired level of education.[11]

A girl’s value on the marriage market also contributes to the opportunity cost of sending her to school. It is common in many areas of Tanzania for young girls to be given away in marriage, generally without their consent, in exchange for cattle or money—their so-called bride price. In Tarime, girls as young as 11 years old are forced into marriage.[12] As a result of their commoditization, girls’ education, childhoods, and autonomy are sacrificed. Although precise rates of child marriage are notoriously difficult to substantiate, given that many of these unions are unregistered and the topic is taboo, a significant percentage (18.1 percent) of survey respondents residing in the Mara and Mwanza regions of Tanzania admitted a high prevalence of child marriage locally.[13]

Girls’ particular vulnerability as victims of sexual violence also contributes to excessive dropout rates. In a survey conducted by researchers at the University of London, Tanzanian girls reported experiencing regular sexual harassment and violence at the hands of male teachers and pupils, who overcome them physically or coerce them into sexual activity through threats or promises of money and/or favorable grades.[14] In fact, 20 percent of Tanzanian women have been the victims of sexual violence.[15] And sexual activity at an age when or in a situation where a girl does not have the agency to negotiate safe sex practices—whether because of rape, coercion, or early marriage—is a major contributing factor to the alarming rate of new HIV infections among young women.[16] For this reason, parents are typically more comfortable sending girls to schools where the teachers are female, as their daughters are less likely to be exposed to sexual assault and gender bias more generally.[17] Unfortunately, female teachers are the exception, leaving girls and their parents to worry about their safety while at school.

Aside from these and other impediments to attendance, the quality of education in Tanzania is insufficient. According to the World Bank, Tanzania’s student to teacher ratio was 43 to 1 in 2013, compared to 14 to 1 in the United States and 18 to 1 in the United Kingdom. In some areas of Tanzania, classroom size exceeds 60 students per one teacher.[18] In general, the investment in education per student is inadequate.

Tanzanian girls’ active participation and achievement in school is also affected by sociocultural norms that effectuate their disempowerment, harm their senses of self, and contribute to gender-specific health issues. Estimates peg the rate of female genital mutilation (FGM) among Tanzanian women at 18 percent,[19] and experts consider the practice “well-established” in the Mara region despite the fact that the practice is illegal in Tanzania.[20] In the Tarime district of Mara, FGM typically occurs when a girl is between 10 and 16 years old to prepare her for early marriage, which, according to cultural tradition, is expected to occur within two years of the ritual.[21] Domestic violence is likewise destructive and prevalent. It is estimated that 72 percent of women ages 15-49 in Mara have experienced violence at the hands of a family member or partner.[22] According to researchers, “[t]he consequences on both physical and mental health are devastating as abused women are more exposed to mental disorders and adverse mental health consequences.”[23]

Once they reach puberty, girls’ engagement in school is likewise uniquely affected by menstruation, which brings with it the worry of soiling one’s clothes due to a lack of sanitary supplies and inadequate toilet facilities at schools. High rates of absenteeism often result.[24]

Taken together, these situations, circumstances, and tendencies evince the reality that the education of girls is not valued in many areas of Tanzania, including Tarime. Girls in the district have reported that boys’ education is a priority. One individual explained that “[p]arents say that when you educate a girl child, she will get married to another family; therefore, there is no advantage of educating women.” Another girl cited parents’ desire to keep daughters docile and unaware of their rights, including laws protecting them against child marriage and FGM, as a reason for keeping them out of school.[25]

In fact, girls’ education could improve the lives of thousands of men, women, and children across Tanzania. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said:

To educate girls is to reduce poverty… Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and promote health — including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation.

Indeed, studies conducted by the World Bank indicate that “increasing the share of women with secondary education by one percentage point can boost the annual per capita income growth by 0.3 percent on average,”[26] and that “every extra year of schooling beyond the average boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10-20 percent.”[27] The positive effects of her increased wages are likely to be felt community-wide given a woman’s propensity to put 90 percent of her income toward the care and wellbeing of her family.[28] For a low-income country like Tanzania, particularly the Tarime district, the case for improving girls’ access to and engagement in education couldn’t be clearer.







Cochrane, Nancy and Anna D’Souza, “Measuring Access to Food in Tanzania: A Food Basket Approach,” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2014.

Dennis, Caroline and Katie Stahley, “Universal Primary Education in Tanzania: The Role of School Expenses and Opportunity Costs,” Evans School Review (2012) 2 (1).

Gibbs, Nancy, “To Fight Poverty, Invest in Girls,” TIME, February 14, 2011.

Kazoka, Ludovick, “Tanzania: Mara Tops List in Gender-Based Violence,” allAfrica.com, February 21, 2013.

Mchome, Josiah, “Free’s Many Fees: School Unaffordable in Tanzania,” Seattle Times, September 12, 2010.

Mtengeti, Koshuma S., Emmanuel Jackson, Juliana Masabo, Albert William, and Grace Mghamba, Report on Child Marriage Survey Conducted in Dar es Salaam, Coastal, Mwanza and Mara Regions, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Children’s Dignity Forum, 2008.

Nyaronga, Dan and Roxana Toma, “Socio-Cultural Practices and Women’s Health in Tanzania,” International Journal of Social Science & Human Behavior Study (2014) 1(4).

Rihani, May A., Keeping the Promise: Five Benefits of Girls Education, Washington, D.C.: Academy for Educational Development, 2006.

Russell, Cathy, “President Obama Just Announced a New Effort to Empower Girls. Here’s What It Means,” New York Times, July 31, 2015.

Sutherland-Adi, Esi, Gender Equity in Junior and Senior Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2008.

Unterhalter, Elaine and Jo Heslop, Transforming Education for Girls in Nigeria & Tanzania: A Cross-Country Analysis of Baseline Research, Institution of Education, University of London (2011).

Urrio, Lulu Imelda, Koshuma Mtengeti, Emmanuel Jackson, and Grace Mghamba, Peer Research Report on Child Marriage in Tarime District, Mara Region, Tanzania, Children’s Dignity Forum (CDF) and Forward UK, 2009.

Vavrus, Frances and Goodiel Moshi, “The Cost of a ‘Free’ Primary Education in Tanzania,” International Critical Childhood Policy Studies (2009) 2(1).

[1] Unterhalter and Heslop, Transforming Education for Girls in Nigeria & Tanzania, 15.

[2] Dennis and Stahley, ““Universal Primary Education in Tanzania,” 48.

[3] Rihani, Keeping the Promise, 1.

[4] Cochrane, “Measuring Access to Food in Tanzania.”

[5] Vavrus and Moshi, “The Cost of a ‘Free’ Primary Education in Tanzania,” 36.

[6] Ibid., 38.

[7] Russell, “President Obama Just Announced a New Effort to Empower Girls.”

[8] Dennis and Stahley, ““Universal Primary Education in Tanzania,” 53.

[9] Rihani, Keeping the Promise, 1.

[10] Urrio, Peer Research Report on Child Marriage, 16.

[11]Unterhalter and Heslop, Transforming Education for Girls in Nigeria & Tanzania, 31.

[12] Urrio, Peer Research Report on Child Marriage, 24.

[13] Mtengeti, et al, Report on Child Marriage Survey, 31.

[14] Unterhalter and Heslop, Transforming Education for Girls in Nigeria & Tanzania, 39.

[15]Nyaronga and Toma, “Socio-Cultural Practices and Women’s Health in Tanzania,” 46.

[16] Russell, “President Obama Just Announced a New Effort to Empower Girls.”

[17] Rihani, Keeping the Promise, 23.

[18] Mchome, “Free’s Many Fees.”

[19] Nyaronga and Toma, “Socio-Cultural Practices and Women’s Health in Tanzania,” 46.

[20] Mtengeti, et al, Report on Child Marriage Survey, 33.

[21] Urrio, Peer Research Report on Child Marriage, 17-18.

[22] Kazoka, “Tanzania: Mara Tops List in Gender-Based Violence.”

[23] Nyaronga and Toma, “Socio-Cultural Practices and Women’s Health in Tanzania,” 46.

[24] Sutherland-Adi, Gender Equity in Junior and Senior Secondary Education, 5.

[25] Urrio, Peer Research Report on Child Marriage, 26-27.

[26] Rihani, Keeping the Promise, 3.

[27] Ibid., 60.

[28] Gibbs, “To Fight Poverty, Invest in Girls.”

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