Millennium Development Goals’ Perverse Effects: Bridging the Gender Gap in Education in Mozambique

Francesca Salvi

Doctoral Researcher

University of Sussex, Department of Education, Centre for International Education

Interconnections between education and growth have been a core theme of the development agenda. At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, they informed Goal 2 (Universal Education) and Goal 3 (Gender Equality), expressing the need to promote universal access to education and to eliminate gender disparities in education by 2015. Specifically, Goal 2 aimed to ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere would be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. Similarly, Goal 3 focused on gender by encouraging countries to eliminate disparities in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and at all levels of education no later than 2015.

According to official data divulged by INE, Mozambique has experienced a process of fertility decline for the past 15 years, from 5.7 (1980) to 4.3 (2005) children per woman. However, as seemingly revealing as this particular data may be, it glosses over the nuances of specific reproductive trends. More useful INE data provides clear insight into the sexual and reproductive health of Mozambican young people (INE, 2001). According to the INJAD survey, the number of young people contributing to the country’s fertility rate remains high. Among the 5,347 girls between 15 and 24 interviewed 49.3% had already had at least one child at the time of the interview, while 52,7% had become pregnant at least once. Moreover, the mean age at first baby decreased from 19.2 in the 1990s to 18.6 in 2000s. Overall, this means that Mozambican women have their first child at a young age, but then go on to have fewer children throughout their life.

Seen from this perspective, teenage pregnancy remains a tangible source of concern as it occurs during those years generally devoted to formal schooling and, as such, motherhood is likely to cause conflict with human capital investment, thereby raising the opportunity cost of time spent in education (Chigona and Chetty, 2007, p. 2). Teenage pregnancy is subsequently listed among the main causes of school dropouts in sub-Saharan Africa (Chankseliani, 2008; Eloundou-Enyegue, Stycos and Jah, 2004; Grant and Hallman, 2006; Meekers and Ahmed, 1999), where it accounts for approximately 18% of all female dropouts in secondary school and 7.3% in both secondary and primary school (Eloundou-Enyegue, Stycos and Jah, 2004, p. 3). The numbers are even worst in Mozambique, where pregnancy accounts for 39.1% of the total number of dropouts in secondary schools and 9.0% at the primary level (Eloundou-Enyegue, Stycos and Jah, 2004). At the individual level, this may mean limitations on wellbeing through, for instance, the early curtailment of education leading to a loss of academic qualifications and subsequent secure employment. At a country level, the conflict between teenage pregnancy and education may hinder development towards a fully modernized economy by limiting the number of skilled individuals.

If, as it seems, pregnancy is among the main causes of school dropout, it should come as no surprise that national governments in most sub-Saharan African countries view a reduction of teenage pregnancy as contributing to bridging of the gender gap in education. Accordingly, some sub-Saharan African states seem to have moved some way towards meeting the aims set out in various international conventions, signalled, for example, by an increase in the formulation of gender-sensitive policies towards education in the last decade (Chilisa, 2002).

Chilisa (ibid.) distinguishes three kinds of policies targeting in-school pregnancy: expulsion, continuation and re-entry policies. Continuation policies are the most progressive, whereas the other two categories contribute to the reproduction of some forms of gender inequalities, through limiting access to education for girls who become pregnant. Chilisa further categorises Mozambique within the group of states adhering to rigid expulsion policies. However, Mozambique has recently undertaken a process of transition, mirrored, among other things, by the 2003 national policy targeting pregnancy related school dropouts (Ministerial Decree 39/GM/2003). This policy indicates that pregnant girls should be transferred from day to night courses, marking a shift from Chilisa’s analysis. It also mandates that school staff should be suspended, if found to be involved with the pregnancy at all. This shift in policy has important consequences both for those targeted by the decree and for the positioning of the state within the international community.

Decree 39/GM/2003 appears to be a rational response to the gender gap. On the one hand it marks some improvement from previous customary habits of expelling pregnant girls by allowing them to remain in education and complete their degree, albeit transferred to a night courses. On the other hand the decree sends a clear message: pregnancy is not welcome within educational institutions, and it will have an impact on attendance. Strategically, transferring girls to night courses also becomes a deterrent for other girls, in that they will be able to see that a pregnancy will not be condoned. Ultimately, decree 39/GM/2003 is an attempt to de-normalise in-school pregnancy, by reducing its visibility, or limiting it to specific sections of the day, namely, those traditionally allocated to adult education. Overall, it seems to provide a functional operationalisation of MDG 2 and 3 in its aims and practical implications.

What looks like a happy ending is however problematic and deserves to be unpacked in the light of extensive qualitative fieldwork. For instance men are rarely penalised, and the indications contained in decree 39/GM/2003 in this respects rarely make it beyond the official act. This is for two reasons. First, men or boys involved with girls’ pregnancies rarely attend the same school as the girls. They are often members of the community, whether employed or unemployed. Second, if they work in school as teachers, it is unlikely that they are made redundant. The supply for teachers in Mozambique is in fact limited, and demand for schooling is high. In the worst case scenario, teachers may be transferred to a different school, but even this is unlikely.

At the same time, although decree 39/GM/2003 does allow pregnant girls to remain in education, it does so by transferring them to night courses. Attendance at night may be problematic in a number of ways. For instance public transport at night is scant, making journeys longer for girls. Being out and about at night is also more dangerous, especially if transfer times are longer, making it riskier for pregnant girls to go to school. Night courses can be disrupted more often, for example by electricity black-outs, which abounds, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. As night courses were originally developed for adult literacy, there is likely to be a substantial age gaps between classmates, making it more difficult to integrate and create a feeling of community in the classroom.

All of these reasons contribute to raising the opportunity cost of attending school for pregnant girls, and ultimately encourage drop out. In this sense, decree 39/GM/2003 does little to provide an avenue for pregnant girls to remain in education. In other words, the decree does comply with the international agreement to which Mozambique signed up, represented in this case by MDG 2 and 3. It also seems to be a functional operationalisation of the concerns subsumed by the MDGs. However, a careful exploration of its practical implications suggests that the policy may in fact contribute to the discrimination of in-school pregnant girls, and in-school mothers. In turns, this goes against the implications of MDG 2 and 3 as girls who happen to get pregnant in primary school may not be supported in order to complete the cycle. Similarly, by de facto encouraging dropout, there seems to be no attempt to bridge the gender gap in both primary and secondary education.

This brief analysis has suggested that decree 39/GM/2003 may run the risk of contrasting the aims of the Goals it was originally meant to support. A possible way to limit perverse effects such as those mentioned here is to consider processes along the lines of outlining ‘goals’. Similarly, it would be beneficial to engage with local communities in order to operationalise such goals through context-sensitive policies. Careful monitoring, and inclusion of all stakeholders – in this case, students and pregnant schoolgirls themselves – would counterbalance the impact of potential perverse effects, and contribute effectively to bridging the gender gap in education.


Chankseliani, M. (2008), ‘Gender inequality in Mozambican primary education: problems, barriers and recommendations’. Political Perspectives, 2 (1), 1-30.

Chigona, A. and Chetty, R. (2007), ‘Girls’ Education in South Africa: Special Consideration to Teen Mothers as Learners’. Journal of Education for International Development, 3 (1), 1-17.

Chilisa, B. (2002), ‘National Policies on Pregnancy in Education Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa: the case of Botswana’. Gender and Education, 14 (1), 21-35.

Eloundou-Enyegue, P. M., Stycos, J. M. and Jah, F. (2004), Integrating Education and Population Policy: The Gender-Equity Payoffs of Reducing Pregnancy-Related Dropouts, Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America. Boston.

Grant, M. and Hallman, K. (2006), Pregnancy-related school dropout and prior school performance in South Africa. New York: Population Council.

INE. (2001), Inquérito Nacional Sobre Saúde Reprodutiva e Comportamento Sexual dos Jovens e Adolescentes. Maputo.

Meekers, D. and Ahmed, G. (1999), ‘Pregnancy-related school dropouts in Botswana’. Population Studies, 53, 195-209.