Tanzanian authorities arrested five pregnant schoolgirls together with their parents and then released them on bail as part of a crackdown to end teenage pregnancies in the region.

Authorities are reportedly looking for the men who impregnated the girls. Records indicate that over 50 girls have become pregnant over the last 24 months.

The policy of punishment endorsed by President John Magufuli was widely criticized by activists after he told a rally: “As long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school … After getting pregnant, you are done.”

A law dating back to the 1960s allows all state schools in Tanzania to ban young mothers from attending. Over the past decade more than 55,000 Tanzanian pregnant schoolgirls have been expelled from school, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Dinah Musindarwezo, executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communications Network, Femnet, was particularly critical of the government’s harsh stance towards the girls who get pregnant.

“(President) Magufuli’s remarks could push girls into child labor and reinforce gender stereotypes leading to gender-segregated jobs,” she wrote in an opinion piece in The East African. “This goes against the African Union’s efforts to increase the number of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

“When he took up the presidency, Magufuli was adamant about fighting corruption to ensure equitable development. That was before his homophobic and sexist remarks started. What he should know is that it’s impossible to achieve development without achieving gender equality as various studies have shown.”

A recent Human Rights Watch report revealed that Tanzania and Sierra Leone were the worst offenders in the area of denying teenage mothers an education. It said that over 8,000 Tanzanian girls drop out of school every year due to pregnancy.

More Tanzanians oppose the President on this issue, according to a recent survey. According to “Reality check: Citizens views on education”, by the group Sauti za Wananchi, 62 per cent of citizens polled prefer that girls be allowed to resume school after giving birth.

Only 21 per cent want girls to be expelled and not allowed back.  w/pix of a young mother