Position paper on school re-entry for child mothers, Uganda.
Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights (SARI) is cognizant of the efforts put in place by the Ministry of Education and Sports in reopening schools in a safe manner for all learners and the challenges associated with the young people who find themselves in the role of parenthood. These efforts are commendable on the part of Government as they seek not to leave anyone behind hence building of an integrated, self- sustaining and independent national economy. Uganda also made two international commitments which include the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Education For All goals (EFA). The SDGs 4, 5 and 10 are relevant to the Ministry of Education and Sports to ensure that by 2030 boys and girls are able to complete a full course of education and that gender disparities will be eliminated at all education levels by 2030.
The two-year shutdown of schools due to Covid-19 resulted in a surge in teen pregnancies across the country. According to UN Population Fund data, over 32,000 adolescent conceptions were documented on average per month in Uganda during the 2020-2021 lockdown. The surge in the number of teenage pregnancies caused social panic and also forecast doom for the majority of girls. With thousands of girls risking dropping out of school, the ministry of education and sports directed that pregnant and teenage mothers be allowed to return to school.
Currently we have an estimation of 350,000 child mothers who require different guidelines if they are to stay in school. We recognize that these categories need different supportive structures from all key stakeholders. Their different needs include physical, emotional, social, economic and spiritual needs.
As SARI, we view child parents as human beings who need to be loved nurtured and enabled to flourish as they define their space in society. We acknowledge that it is our collective responsibility to provide love and hope as well as safe space for these young mothers to go through difficult processes and seek second chances. We are convinced that reducing the high rate of teenage pregnancy and also retaining the teenage mothers in school is critical towards meeting the SDG 3, to “Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”.
However, what we have not considered in our context is that beyond the positive language of getting the teenage mothers back to school are real issues facing girls in the different communities. The abuse, the teenage pregnancy, the erosion of confidence, the fear, the lack of resources to get back to school, the relegation to a house help as a young girl and most heart-wrenching, the stigmatization in the communities.
The other critical areas of challenge relate to the learners themselves; would they be de-swayed from the economic activities they are engaged in to concentrate on education! What kind of phyco-social support, material support to these needs? There are practical challenges that are being experienced; the anticipated psych-social support that these girls need which is not available to them in most communities.
Therefore, this position paper seeks to engage and advocate for realistic options that need to be explored given this reality. It is not enough to declare that the teenage mothers must go back to school, rather we must also invest in systems and structures that enable girls` holistic re-entry like protection against GBV, stigma and discrimination, provision of school uniforms and sanitary towels and scholarships to fund their education. We must invest in systems like community driven organizations which fill the gap between school, parents and governments.
ISSUES AND CONCERNS FOR SARI
Although sending such a category of learners back to school is a mileage, schools and the education system must be empowered if they are to support breastfeeding learners. There is need to provide a supportive community for these girls with protective structures that can enable them to thrive while in school. The following concerns need to be rethought for effectiveness of the reentry program.
1. Children are struggling to re-orient themselves back into schools hence socio-psycho needs and long-term education benefit need to be emphasised for their perseverance.
2. Currently, schools where the special group of girls is being sent, don’t have the capacity to handle them with a possibility that the girls might eventually drop out due to unfavorable conditions thus failing government intention of giving them a second chance. School owners have the challenge of providing adequate facilities for lactating mothers
3. Parents have an increased burden in terms of fees and taking care of unplanned, undesired and unsupported grandchildren, living with stigma in cases where incest is involved.
4. SARI is concerned with Parents that force these child mothers into child labor yet there is an opportunity for them to return to school.
5. Some of the parents have been noted marrying off these young girls instead of helping them to return to school. This has led to early and forced marriages amongst teenage mothers hence denying their rights to education
6. At community level, there is a lot of stigma and discrimination which is also perpetuated by the community beliefs and values where a girl who gives birth should not return to school since they considered at “bad omen” to the family.
7. The way social media portrays the images of these girls that return to school with children is baffling hence this needs to be addressed programmatically.
8. Whereas the ministry of education urged schools to prepare for the re-entry of teenage mothers, the budgetary allocation to effect this decision left a lot to be desired. This is coupled with the need to make new guidelines that are flexible to cater for their new breastfeeding roles even within school.
PROPOSED ACTIONS FOR THE DIFFERENT STAKEHOLDERS
There is need for active involvement of the institutions of nurture which include family, schools, community, faith institutions, CSOs and Government. These have a different role to play in keeping these girls in school thereby enhancing their rights to write.
Parents and guardians: These have a role of rehabilitating the girls whose rights have been violated hence the need for psychosocial support to enable the girls overcome the trauma they went through. Parents ought to create a supportive environment for children that have found themselves in parenthood. They should seek support and accompaniment from relatives, neighbours and professional bodies.
Parents that engage these girls in child labor instead of helping them to return to should be apprehended. The same goes for parents that engage these girls in child marriage. These redress measures/punishments should be made public such that they don’t reoccur in our communities.
Teachers: There is a need to retool the senior teachers in schools on how they can care for the group of learners in question. The teachers are supposed to change their approach towards them to offer them psycho-social support with a supportive classroom environment.
Schools: There is need to cater for their unique needs as children that have children and need to look at their needs at individual level since some of the girls have to breastfeed as at different intervals yet the school system requires them to stay in school from 8am to 5pm.
Faith Institutions: There is need to intensify the acts of love instead of castigation and looking at these young girls as sinners. Their moral and spiritual support is imperative for their growth.
Community level: There is need for supportive community without stigmatization and a conducive home environment that enables the girls to tap into the opportunity to return to school
Social media: There is need for a supportive social media campaign that encourages these girls to return to school instead of dehumanizing them.
Government: SARI calls upon the government to rework the school guidelines such that there is flexibility for the school going mothers. Some of these girls cannot keep in school the whole day since they have to continue with breastfeeding up to 2 years as recommended by the Ministry of health. Government also should support the parents who are taking care of the child mothers as well as their grandchildren with increased Income Generating Activities (IGA) so as to enable them foot the economic needs.
We need joint efforts if these teenage mothers are to return and be retained in school. We therefore call upon all stakeholders to avail the necessary amenities to the issues that are affecting these teenage mothers who got the courage to return to school. There is need to offer them all the moral and financial support to cater for their needs holistically.
Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights has developed this position paper with the support of the African Women's Development Fund (AWDF) under the My Write is My Right! project.
Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights.