Expectant teenagers; to go or not to go back to school

Understanding why we got to this debate.

 

In January 2022, Uganda fully opened schools after nearly two years of complete closure for lower classes and partial closure for candidate classes. Schools were closed as one of the measures to curb the spread of Covid 19 in Uganda. Opening schools in Uganda ended the world’s most extended school closure due to Covid 19.

According to UNICEF, only 24% of school-going adolescents are enrolled in secondary school; further, still, only a quarter (1 in 4) of children who complete primary enrol into secondary education. The education sector in Uganda has dramatically improved significantly in enrollment and retention of students; however, there are significant hindrances still faced by teachers and those of school-going age, which undermine the achievements registered so far. Only 9% of children with disability enrol into school; little or limited attention is given to early childhood development as part of the education curriculum. Other challenges like school requirements, sexual abuse, and early marriage keep many out of school, especially girls.

Amidst the above challenges came Covid 19, which made the situation worse and exposed all the weaknesses in the education sector of Uganda. In June 2021, the world’s G7 countries met to “reach major new agreements to help the world fight, and then build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, more prosperous future”. High on the agenda for many civil society organisations, including Save the Children for the G7, was prioritising education for all especially ensuring that pregnant teens can enrol back and stay in school.

https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/800/1*AuyKAbz9k608skPmqH_tZQ.jpegAdolescent girls attending life skills training. Photo credit; Youth Empowerment Trust Uganda (YETU)

In Uganda’s guidelines, when students become pregnant, they are supposed to leave school and return six months after birthing their baby. The Ministry of Education recently overruled this guideline, and the Minister of Education asked all schools to allow all pregnant students to enrol back into school. This came after the realisation that several reports indicated the surge of sexual violence against girl children, with over 21,000 girls who reported pregnant at police stations reporting sexual abuse between March and June 2020. These numbers continued to worsen until January 2022, when schools fully reopened.

And now, the primary debate is whether or not pregnant girls should be allowed into school.

Ideally, we don’t want girl children to miss out on their education, and it is clear that several agencies are supporting the enrollment of pregnant mothers now that schools have reopened. Girl children are already vulnerable in many ways, including just being a girl. There has been debate among civil society, teachers, parents, girl children and government on the matter and nothing is conclusive yet. Some feel being pregnant comes with needs for the mother that school environments cannot meet. While others think if the expectant mother wants to return to school, they should be accorded opportunity and fully supported to thrive.

How did we get to have more than 30,000 pregnant school-going children?

Tackling the root cause of teenage pregnancy will be more sustainable than opening school gates to pregnant teenagers. While both contribute to girl child education, especially the attainment of higher levels of education, addressing a root cause leads to a more significant impact. A report by UNICEF indicates that Uganda registered a 22.5% increase in teenage pregnancy during the past two years (2020–2021). The Perceived determinants of adolescent pregnancies include:

  • Lack of social skills.
  • Lack of knowledge on how to avoid pregnancy.
  • Low acceptance/utilisation of contraceptives.
  • Neglect by parents.
  • Sexual abuse.
  • Lack of community responsibility.
  • Media influence.
  • Peer pressure.
  • Cultural beliefs that promote early marriage and lack of role models.

Teenage pregnancy is a major reproductive health issue, with girls unaware of their right to health, lack of bodily integrity, being forced into marriage due to poverty, girl children being sexually abused by relatives, partners and strangers, and limited access to sexual reproductive health services. According to UNICEF, Uganda has the 16th highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world and the 10th highest absolute number of child brides globally. According to daily monitor Newspaper (National Planning Authority report; January 14th 2022, 4.5 million learners might never return to school. The significant reasons for high school dropout are teenage pregnancy among girls and menial work among children. To support the re-enrollment efforts, the government launched a one-month-long national back to a school media campaign to sensitise stakeholders about the need to take pupils back to school and support the education sector.

Therefore, it is critical to intensify life skills and sexual education for adolescents to ensure that they have age-appropriate information, skills, and services to make informed decisions about their sexual life. Activities like girls’ clubs or safe spaces have proved to be a good platform for life skills for adolescents, continued learning and being accountable to each. Youth Friendly Services at health facilities also contribute to increased uptake of health services and information by adolescents. Sensitising communities about the rights of a girl child is needed because so many teen mothers are victims of forced marriage by their parents and relatives, which signifies harmful cultural practices and poverty. However, there has been limited investment in these by the government and entirely left for civil society organisations that primarily run shorter programs/projects.

As the world over plans to recover from the effects of Covid, governments and all actors should gather the lessons the pandemic has taught us and use this information to design/implement sexual reproductive health programs that will empower adolescents and contribute to a reduction in teenagers. With this, we will have better educational attainment for girl children, contributing to social, economic, and civic development.

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