Education: Uganda registers rights progress for pregnant students but barriers remain

By: Busiku Esther Sharon

The International Women’s Day celebrations come at a time when teenage pregnancy, parenthood, and child marriage are still a major health and social concern in Uganda, constituting a significant barrier for girls’ education.

Whereas in recent years, the country has taken bolder steps to protect the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers, Covid19 exacerbated the challenge due to prolonged school closures, lack of protective communities, inaccessibility to sexual and reproductive health services, and lack of remote learning opportunities during the pandemic.

A total of 354,736 teenage pregnancies were registered in 2020 and 196,499 in the first six months of 2021 according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with the most affected regions being Lango, Busoga, Rwenzori, West Nile, and Buganda.

Both national and UN data show that 25 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 19 have begun childbearing, 34 percent of girls are married before age 18, and over 7 percent before age 15.

According to UNICEF, 25 percent of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually are in adolescent girls, with more than 300,000 pregnancies ending in unsafe abortions.

A recent report by UNFPA warned that if no action is taken to ensure these girls stay in school, 60% of teenage mothers will end up in peasant agriculture and annually more than Shs645 billion will be spent by Government on healthcare for teen mothers and education of their children.

At the tail end of 2020, Uganda set in motion revised guidelines on pregnancy prevention and management in schools.

The policy affirms the right to education of students who are pregnant or are parents, though it places numerous conditions on enrollment. It mandates schools to prioritize readmitting mothers and girls after pregnancy and provides redress for children and parents when public schools refuse to enroll them.

It also gives schools guidance to tackle stigma, discrimination, and violence against students who are pregnant or are parents.

However, it also sets out a series of strict “reentry” conditions, including requiring girls to drop out when they are three months pregnant, and to take a mandatory six-month maternity leave, conditions that may constitute an effective barrier, particularly as girls will be required to stay out of school for up to a year.

The policy relies on effectively compulsory periodic pregnancy testing to detect and prevent pregnancies, violating girls’ rights to privacy, equality, and bodily autonomy.

The female population in Uganda surpasses that of males. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 51% of the 45 million people are women and girls.

It is therefore crucial that we pay more attention to the needs of women and girls in fostering their individual development and that of the country because the economic progress of a developing nation is dependent on the progress of their women.

“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women,” Kofi Annan.

Women have been recognized to play an important role in society. Empowering them is vital if we are to realize a world of zero poverty. This would involve promoting their sense of self-worth, their ability to determine their choices, increasing their access to social services, and their right to impact change for themselves and society.

Uganda committed itself to work towards achieving gender equality and empowerment among women. Over the years, we have witnessed some improvement in the development of the woman and girl child in the country especially in the areas of leadership and entrepreneurship.

However, there’s more that is still lacking given that women and girls are still the most vulnerable to social and economic threats and therefore need to be protected or assisted to be more resilient to these changes. Education is one area that needs to be prioritized.

Education is a powerful driver for development. No society can achieve social-economic growth without investing in the education of its people. It improves the quality of their lives and leads to broad social benefits to individuals and society (IIhan Ozturk, 2008).

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, many facets of life were affected resulting in the closure of learning institutions, loss of employment for some, closure of business for others, restriction of movements to mention but a few.

No group was more affected than the learners especially girls who had to sit home for two years exposed to the dangers of society like rape, defilement, early marriages, or even child labor.

A 2021 audit report by the Auditor General on the state of children under the lockdown period revealed limited access to reading materials provided, an increase in physical abuse, teenage pregnancies and in some instances death.

The Education sector fully opened at the start of the year for all students including pregnant and breastfeeding young women were expected to report for learning. This however was not possible for some who were facing challenges of stigma and discrimination.

Even with a directive from the President to allow these girls back in school some institutions especially Christian founded institutions have not heeded the directive and sadly continue to shut their doors to these girls.

“Pregnant and breastfeeding girls should not come to our schools, let them sort their issues at home, we cannot allow such immoral behavior,” Bishop James William Ssebaggala, Mukono Diocese.

Such institutions have been able to get away with disobeying the directives because as a country, we don’t have proper policies and guidelines to protect the rights of these pregnant students.

The National Children Authority, whose mandate is to protect the rights of children is almost non-existent. Members of Parliament at one time questioned the relevance of the organization given that it’s silent on matters to do with children.

The Auditor General’s report also revealed that the organization has no governing board which has led to the absence of policy and operational guidelines for the entity.

Other countries in the African Union (AU) recognize the significance of educating the girl child regardless of their state. Over 30 African countries now have laws, policies, or strategies to protect pregnant students’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education.

Sierra Leone for example, which has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Africa, reversed its policy in 2020, lifting a discriminatory ban against pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers and adopting a more robust inclusive education policy.

Even with these guidelines in place, implementation has failed because of weak enforcement of the law. Learning institutions do not feel obliged to obey the laws.

Without access to education, we will have a generation of children and young mothers who cannot read and write, who cannot help themselves. A much more vulnerable generation.

Photo Credit: TimesUg/AFP