A letter written by a senior official at the ministry covering health and gender issues in Tanzania has asked the head of FHI 360, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, to immediately stop airing advertisements under a project called Tulonge Afya which means Let’s speak health in Swahili.
“The ministry intends to revise the contents of all your ongoing radio and TV spots for family planning, thus I request you to stop with immediate effect airing and publishing any family planning contents in any media channels until further notice,” the letter, dated 19 September said, according to Reuters.
Two weeks earlier, at a rally on 9 September in the northern Meatu district, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli had expressed his doubts about family planning. “If you cannot work, then opt for family planning but if you can work hard why family planning?” he wondered.
President John Magufuli told rally-goers that Tanzania needs to increase its population, which to him, meant that women need to stop taking contraceptives.
Magufuli, nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ for his forceful leadership style, introduction of anti-corruption measures and tough economic reforms since taking office in November 2015, may soon find himself with another nickname – ‘The Forceful Breeder’.
Disguising his stance on contraceptives as concern for a declining labour force such as that witnessed “while visiting European countries”, Magufuli seems set on denying women the freedom to decide when they want to have children and how many children they would love to have. “I have traveled to Europe and elsewhere and I have seen the side effects of birth control,” he said. “In some countries they are now struggling with declining population growth. They have no labor force.”
While an argument for the increase in labour force is a valid concern, this is no way to go about increasing the working age population.
This isn’t the first time Magafuli has proposed controversial policies that have women at the receiving end. Last year, he announced plans to prevent pregnant girls from returning to school. He had also in 2016 said that women could stop using contraceptives “since school care had become free”.
His negative connotation of laziness for those who choose family planning is revealing on just how much a policy on contraceptives is really a desire to keep patriarchal norms intact, a sentiment echoed by some experts, who raised concerns, according to The Guardian, that what he said could further bolster an already-existing patriarchal power structure in Tanzania.
“It’s a statement by a sitting head of state at a time when Tanzania takes every statement that he issues to be law,” said Judy Gitau, regional coordinator for Africa for the charity Equality Now to The Guardian. “From past experiences, whenever the president issues a statement on a given issue, in practice it becomes policy, and so we can expect ramifications.”
Magufuli’s campaign to restrict women’s choices and opportunities continues even amidst activism for healthier choices and bodily autonomy for women. At its worst, Tanzanian women would have little to no control over when or if they become pregnant. This; despite the fact that the country’s health infrastructure has rendered being pregnant incredibly dangerous: the maternal mortality ratio is 570 deaths for every 100,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization. (The UK’s rate is 9 deaths per 100,000 live births.) And abortions, while illegal in Tanzania and punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment, have been so prevalent it has been described as ‘a silent killer’.
The 58-year-old, who has two children, made no mention of the question of unpaid labour for all the times women would be out of work due to pregnancy, for a society which claims it is in need of children, neither are benefits stated for the common situations of single mothers raising the next generation of the workforce (which he is unlikely to care about given his previous stance on pregnant school girls). For some families, no amount of work is going to overcome limited opportunities and poor wages, yet Magufuli would rather focus on how women use their bodies than make sure there are good health policies, conducive environments and a stable economy to enable them make the decision to give birth to more children.
“The whole issue of contraception in Tanzania is a man’s decision. A woman cannot make her own decision to use contraceptives without the approval of the man,” gender equality activist Petrider Paul told The Guardian. “Most men will be boastful: ‘The president has said this, we should keep producing more children. Why should we use birth control?'”
Opposition MP Cecil Mwambe criticised the comments, saying they contradicted the country’s health policy. Mwambe said that if President Magufuli wanted his comments to be taken seriously, he should change the health insurance scheme to cover 10 children instead of the current four per family, the Citizen reports.
Tanzania has a population of around 53 million people, with 49 percent of them living on less than $2 a day according to The BBC. On average, a woman in Tanzania has more than five children, one of the highest rates in the world.
Other officials are also adopting this impulse to restrict women’s choices. Parliamentary Speaker Job Ndugai, for example, has told female members they cannot wear fake nails or eyelashes.
“With the powers vested in me by the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, I now ban all MPs with false eyelashes and false finger nails from stepping into Parliament,” Ndugai said, just one day after Magufuli’s comments, due to “health reasons” as told to the BBC‘s Focus on Africa programme. They also may not wear denim pants or short dresses, and women who visit parliament are also expected to adhere to the dress code.
Magufuli is not unique in his disdain for contraceptives. Plenty of people around the world—including some Western nations such as the U.S. Trump-led Administration which has embraced a conservative-led movement to limit abortion rights—oppose the use of birth control and refuse to legalise abortions, despite research indicating its rate is more prevalent in nations in which it is illegal.
Tanzania ratified the Maputo Protocol—an African charter of women’s rights which states women have the right to control their fertility and choose any method of contraception—in 2007. Nevertheless, Magufuli’s speech was fiercely criticised by social media users, legislators and women’s rights groups alike for his remarks. His comments serve as a reminder that, despite progress made around the world, at the end of the day, decisions regarding women’s bodily autonomy need to be made by women, or at the very least, in corridors where power is not predominantly male.