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Rights groups urge Tanzania to stop threatening civil society

Nairobi, Kenya | AFP | Tanzania’s government must stop issuing threats against rights groups working with teen mothers or campaigning for gay rights, a joint statement from these organisations said Thursday.

President John Magufuli and top government officials have issued a series of statements vowing to deregister or charge non-governmental organisations which campaign for gay rights or are working to help pregnant girls get an education.

“The government of Tanzania should end its hostile rhetoric toward civil society groups and threats to obstruct their work,” read the statement signed by 18 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Magufuli said last month that students who become pregnant should be barred from finishing their studies. Days later his Home Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba threatened to deregister organisations that challenge this ban on schooling for teen mothers.

Magufuli said that if Tanzanians listened to Western human rights organisations, “all the students in an entire class could have babies”.

The joint statement said that these comments contradict longstanding efforts by Tanzania to ensure girls can go back to school after pregnancy, which was also included in the ruling party’s 2015 election manifesto.

According to the rights groups, government statistics show 30 out of every 100 girls dropped out of school due to pregnancy in 2015. Many schools force girls to undergo routine pregnancy tests and expel them if they are positive.

Magufuli also criticised NGOs who campaign for gay rights, saying they should be countered even if this meant losing foreign aid.

Nchemba then weighed in again saying foreigners who “campaign for homosexuality” will be arrested and deported.

According to the statement from rights groups, previous Tanzanian governments recognised the importance of reaching out to the gay community in fighting HIV infections.

Magufuli’s government however has stopped private health centres from providing AIDS related services, saying this promotes homosexuality, and led a crackdown against the community with some men subjected to forced anal exams.

“Independent civil society plays a crucial role in debates, policymaking and services on critical issues facing Tanzania,” said Michelle Kagari of Amnesty International.

“Threatening to obstruct their work and silence their voices is counterproductive and contrary to Tanzania’s international legal obligations.”

Magufuli, nicknamed “bulldozer”, was elected in October 2015, having become wildly popular as a no-nonsense, corruption-busting man of the people

However, since coming to power he has been accused of increasing authoritarianism and intolerance to dissent.

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