Africa Policy and Futures Forum

Why Social Equity Policies Fail in Africa

By Esther Shaban on May 19, 2022

African countries belong to a part of the world where lives are continually and willfully ignored in the policy decision making process. What would happen if policies were grounded in the real world experiences of the people they impact? What would happen if they became the center, not the margin, of policy ideation and implementation? The more immersed we get in understanding data-driven policy-making, the more we recognize the need for a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to data. It’s evident that we need to go beyond easy numerical soundbites to the complexity of human existence, because today's problems require more than blunt force efforts. For instance, historically , all western countries would think that the way to solve African issues was to churn in money without having any contextual understanding of African lives. This approach creates more problems than it solves. African countries are given loans, and a lot of money in the name of development.

Through these funds, there is a huge attachment to implementing their best practices and adopting their home-grown solutions which at the end of the day is control over African agencies. Looking at African countries' grand challenges we know poverty, corruption, civil war and conflict, poor infrastructure and health systems, among other prevailing challenges, are paramount issues, issues to which we know solutions to.  

Data provides visibility, which, combined with advocacy, grants a place to those who have been left out for so long. We should center marginalized groups, often “invisible,” in policy-making.

 For example , teen pregnancy is one of Africa's most pressing issues in the developing world at large. Among other things, it imposes undue burdens and restrictions on girls' socioeconomic opportunities and widens gender inequality. Teen pregnancy rates remain alarmingly high due to policymakers' inability to comprehensively formulate policies that center the needs and lives of those who are most at risk of teenage pregnancy. According to UNFPA 2019, “every day”, 20,000 girls below the age of 18 give birth in African countries . The UNFPA notes that as a result, many countries have developed strategies to prevent teenage pregnancy, however these countries have mostly focused on changing teenage girl’s behaviour. 

The issue with focusing on solving single issues without taking into consideration intersectionality is that we fail to actually understand different determinants that make teenage pregnancy prevalent. The issue of teenage pregnancy is not a single-issue struggle. There are multiple contributers of teen pregnancy such as child marriage, gender inequality, poverty, sexual violence and lack of access to reproductive health services which include: access to safe abortion, emergency contraceptives, counseling and testing some of the underlying causes of teen pregnancy. In 2015, African countries united with other countries in adopting the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which suggest steps to assure that "no one is left behind," especially with regards to education. What does "no one is left behind'' mean? 

A Human Rights Watch 2018 report argues that ‘leaving no one behind means that African governments should recommit to their inclusive development goals and human rights obligation toward all children, and ensure they adopt human rights compliant policies at the national and local levels to protect pregnant and adolescent mothers' right to education.’ However, the steps to achieve this goal are not clear, mainly because of continued unequal access to education for girls .According to the HDI study in 2017, Breaking Barriers in Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy, the highest number teen pregnancies was found in schools. In other words, students in African schools are at an increased risk of pregnancy. For instance, in 2016 high schools implemented pregnancy-based discriminatory policies by requiring girls to present a negative pregnancy test at the beginning of every term. Although this test has been argued against by experts, these test results were still used to deny education to pregnant girls in Rwanda until 2018.

If a girl came to school pregnant, she was expelled from school - consequently losing her right to education.Pregnancy-based discrimination is justified as a good way to punish girls. Teachers and parents claim that allowing pregnant girls to attend school acquits them of the punishment and normalizes pregnancies outside of marriage. In a study written by the Human Rights Watch (Leave No Girl Behind in Africa, 2022) on teen pregnancy, one teacher they interviewed mentioned that if a pregnant teenager is allowed to attend school, she would be "a bad influence" on other students. In other instances, schools justify this discrimination by claiming that the schools are not equipped with the resources to support pregnant girls. 

Rwanda is among a group of 26 African countries that have adopted "continuation" policies and strategies to enable teenage mothers to re-enter school after giving birth. However, the implementation of these policies remains weak, mostly because of how the education system is set up. In Rwanda, there are primary school examinations, middle secondary school national examinations and high school examinations. Students are placed in different public or semi-public schools depending on how they scored on the national examination. If a teenager drops out of school, her readmission process is made difficult by the fact that she would need to do national examinations in order to be readmitted into a public school. The implications of this are vast, as they also have health, economic, and social consequences. To solve this, the country requires comprehensive policies to minimize barriers and ensure that young mothers are encouraged to resume their education. 

In terms of health, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second leading cause of death for adolescent girls. Teen mothers are at the risk of facing a high maternal mortality rate because of receiving insufficient prenatal care. Uwizeye et al , (2020 ). write that "teen mothers' children are 50% more likely to die early, or develop acute and long term health problems''; in particular, "the risk of maternal death for mothers under 15 in low- and middle-income countries is double that of older females". Additionally, in many cases, pregnant teenagers might find themselves at the risk of undergoing unsafe abortions, because they fear parental judgement, they cannot afford safe abortions, or they fear going to certified health care providers who perfom safe abortions. Traditionally, in Rwandan society, if a girl becomes pregnant before marriage , she is shamed.

 We hear oral stories of girls who would get pregnant before marriage. These girls would be taken to a small island in Lake Kivu between Rwanda and Congo called "akarwa k'abakobwa" – which can be loosely translated to "small island of girls". It is astonishing that 80% of the teen mothers interviewed for the Haguruka study said that they were mistreated by their parents due to their pregnancy. Even though pregnant girls are no longer taken to that small island, adolescent mothers are still at risk of being stigmatized, rejected from families and society. This shows the same cycle of how young girls are treated regardless of the era. The policies that are developed around the issue of teen pregnancy mostly focus solutions on changing girls' behaviour, instead of looking into challenges that make teen pregnancy a likely outcome for thousands of Rwandans living in Rwanda every year.

 In addition, the discrimination of girls due to teen pregnancy undermines many measures that have been employed to promote social development in Rwanda. African countries are challenged when it comes to public policy; a number of the policies fail to address the issue, others are copy-paste from western countries and best practice. There is still a long way to go to achieve social equality, if our systems and approach continue to fail to address issues that people face daily. Who are we designing these policies for? The big question a lot of sub-saharan countries fail to answer is, ‘Why are we designing these policies?’ Throughout the research conducted with different organizations and government institutions, it is clear that there is no agenda or standardized motif explaining why politicians ( policy makers ) choose a certain approach .

This area is characterized by corruption , incompentent individuals and a general lack of resources . It is clear that there is a need to decolonise policy systems.We need African-based approaches that work within an African context.The majority of African countries still use the western approach and some are still governed by the supervision of their colonizers . It still raises a big question ; how long is it going to take African leaders (politicians ) to realize that our systems need to be decolonised in order to function? It needs to center people and their interests first to achieve development , welfare and stability.

As mentioned above, the policy formulation process for any given country , especially in Africa which has a unique context, should put people's needs first. It is still a matter of debate between African leaders, politicians and decision-makers. If African countries do not rethink and reform the public policy formulation process, development and sustainability will not be possible . We will always struggle with the same issue from one generation to another.

Esther Shaban is a junior researcher at EPRN, a data analyst, and a writer, particularly about African politics. She holds a degree in Global challenges from African leadership University . Esther is currently a policy analyst at RwandaEquip. 


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UNFPA. (2019, March 8). Rwanda’s mobile for reproductive health (M4RH) for youth. UNFPA Rwanda. (2022). Retrieved 17 May 2022, from

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