Scovia Ajok, a 17-year-old mother, starts her day by tilling other people’s gardens for a paltry Shs3, 000. To supplement that income, she fries pancakes which she sells at a nearby trading Centre in Tochi Village, Ongako SubCounty in Omoro District.
I met Ajok at Ongako Heath Centre III. Needless to say, life for her and many teenage mothers like her is difficult. When we met, she was among 30 teenage mothers who were patiently waiting to get literacy on sexual reproductive health rights and also financial support from facilitators of the National Association of Women Organisations in Uganda (NAWOU).
How it all began
Ajok says her woes began in 2016 when her father died.
“We were living in Layibi (Gulu) when my father died and our mother left us for another man. My two siblings and I went to the village and started life at our grand parents’ home,” she says.
Ajok had just completed her Primary Leaving Examinations. After her father’s death, her prospects of joining secondary education became slim. Her paternal aunt offered to help. In 2017, Ajok joined Senior One at Gulu College Secondary School where she studied for a year.
Then in 2018, her aunt suggested that Ajok stay home until she could continue paying her fees. She agreed to the proposal but then, all of a sudden, her aunt began mistreating her.
“I was forced to go back to the village. Life was difficult because there was neither money nor food,” she narrates, adding: “I decided to get into a relationship and started living with a boyfriend.”
By getting a boyfriend, she says, she had found a person she could tell ‘her problems’.
Ajok is not alone. In Kitgum District, the problem of teenage pregnancy remains rife. I visited Oyuru Village in Amida Subcounty where I met 16-year-old Sarah Acora who was raped last year on her way from school.
At the time, she was in Primary Six. She got pregnant but suffered a miscarriage after one month. Her mother reported the rape to the Kitgum Police Station but a promise to investigate the matter did not yield any fruit. The incident has since forced her to drop out of school.
Her former school authorities did not follow up her case, claiming the incident never happened within the school premises and was therefore none of their business. She is yet to fully recover after the miscarriage left her with a damaged uterus.
At Kitgum Hospital, health workers demanded Shs200,000, which her family failed to raise leaving her at the mercy of God for healing.
Acora says she cannot go back to school because she faced a lot of stigma. Her peers at school mocked her, forcing her to drop out of school.
Sixteen-year-old Nancy Alimo who also hails from the same village, got pregnant when she was in Primary Five in 2017. She escaped from home and went to live with her 28-year-old boyfriend. She became the second wife and was instructed to live with her sister-in-law with whom they shared house chores. Her husband physically and emotionally abused her and refused to provide for the baby.
Ajok, Alimo and Acora’s stories of sexual violence resulting into teenage pregnancies and eventually dropping out of school are just a tip of an iceberg of what’s happening across the country.
Once pregnant, many girls are abandoned by their parents and scorned by the community. Their dreams for education crash and they go through a hard life struggling to raise their babies; and many times, with an absentee father. Sometimes their parents even demand that they share some of the family responsibilities since they are ‘also parents’.
Where is the problem?
While addressing victims of sexual violence at the Acholi Regional Women’s Forum organised by NAWOU in Kitgum, Abdallah Awuye, the deputy chief administrative officer, Kitgum District said sexual violence remained the most common form of Gender Based Violence in Acholi sub-region and this involved rape, defilement, and early child pregnancies citing that child mothers in Kitgum District are as young as 12 years.
Statistically, the trend remains worrying for sexual violence in Kitgum. This is according to Michael Ogweng, the senior Probation and Welfare Officer, who presented key findings on gender-based violence, statistics retrieved from different health centres across Kitgum District.
A total of 1,825 teenagers were found pregnant in a period between January to September in 2019.
Mr Ogweng said a number of challenges such as breakdown of cultural institutions from the smallest unit of a family are to blame.
“Today, people prefer concentrating on only their nuclear families. They are not bothered even when the neighbours’ children get wasted,” Ogweng laments.
Mr Ogweng suggests that a lot needs to be done on a coordinated family planning campaign, which continues to have misconceptions among different members of society.
He suggests a protection system to support clan leaders and local council leaderships whose role is well stipulated in the Children’s Act under Section 10 where the vice chairperson is mandated at all levels to protect children. He adds that issues of child neglect should not arise at police, yet it can be managed at the local council level.
Miriam Cherukut, the programmes manager at NAWOU, says various categories of perpetrators are involved in impregnating young girls. These include; bodaboda men, fellow students, teachers, young boys who drop out of school, and other older men in the community, especially those with some form of income.
She says most of these men take advantage of the girls’ situations and lack of life skills among some girls, and also manipulate societal perceptions.
Rosette Nanyanzi, the Gender Technical Advisor at the Ministry of Education while quoting a study conducted on teenage pregnancies in 2015, says it was discovered that the biggest driver of teenage pregnancy is poverty and lack of information.
“Families remain challenged with poverty that’s why they are ready to ‘sell’ young girls off for as little as a bag of sugar,” she says.
Nanyanzi notes that parental negligence is a big factor in exacerbating the problem. Parents continue to fail to provide basic requirements, forcing girls into sexual relationships. However, she notes it is true that some girls get pregnant at will.
She explains that teachers still shy away from talking about growth and development where sexual health issues are rarely discussed.
Sexual violence cases such as rape and defilement have far reaching consequences on girls of school-going age resulting into school dropout, and many never go back.
School drop-out rates
According to a report on the link between pregnancy and the school drop-out rate in Uganda in 2015 by the Ministry of Education, eastern Uganda remains the leading region in the number of school dropouts due to teenage pregnancy at 37 per cent.
This is followed by West Nile at 32 per cent. Northern and western Uganda follow closely at 18 per cent each. While central and north eastern are at 15 per cent.
Meanwhile, school completion rates remain low with most girls completing an average of 6.5 years of education and low levels of progression from primary to secondary school.
Education after pregnancy
The ministry of Education allows pregnant girls in candidate classes to stay at school to prepare for the examinations. However, many of the teachers interviewed in the survey stated that they rarely follow up the girls who drop out due to pregnancy. Some teachers noted that follow up is sometimes a waste of time as parents often marry off the girls.
The report notes that the main practice by the school administration is the expulsion of the pregnant girls while others prefer to withdraw from school. Of the 16 schools visited in the survey, only one school had a visibly pregnant girl. In fact, she had to wear a different uniform to serve as an example to other girls who dared to get involved in sexual relationships.
Currently, there’s no comprehensive policy in Uganda on re-admission and re-entry of teenage mothers in schools. However, the report indicates that re-entry of teenage mothers in school has been very successful in countries such as South Africa where pregnant girls are allowed to stay in school and young mothers are allowed to continue.
According to the report, one of the schools in Uganda that has worked on a re-entry model of the girls during pregnancy or after pregnancy is Pader Girls Academy, which targets girls between the ages of 13- 22 years of age through two avenues; the secondary school and vocational training centre.
Once the girls are accepted into the academy, they undergo orientation and assessment to determine their capabilities and preferences, allowing them to select between the two options.
The school also provides daycare services for the children and in addition provides early formal education. However, the model faces funding challenges.
The report suggests that for re-entry, it will require girls to be well-prepared and able to withstand the stigma and teasing from fellow students. Further, re-entry will require that the schools are well-prepared with trained teachers to provide guidance and counselling to receive young mothers and change the perceptions of taking them as mothers and offer support and acceptance.
According to Nanyanzi, the Ministry of Education is currently developing guidelines on prevention and management of teenage pregnancy and re-entry of child mothers in school settings in Uganda where parents can support child mothers to go back to school.
Nanyanzi says parents will have to sign a commitment form to show that they will support their child by keeping the baby and providing the necessary requirements when the girl goes back to school. “We are training teachers to make sure that they don’t act as perpetrators but protectors of children against any form of violence.” she sums up.
The majority of young mothers come from disadvantaged backgrounds, which can make it harder to engage with education. Persistent absence from school and lower educational attainment have been linked to early pregnancy. An understanding of the multiple disadvantages young parents can face is key if our education system is to support them to combine parental responsibilities with learning.
Flexibility on the part of schools and colleges plays into whether a young person’s experience of balancing parenthood and education is positive or negative. Schools have a statutory responsibility to accommodate their pupils’ pregnancy and childcare needs.
Having a choice about how they might want to carry on with learning is essential when it comes to young parents’ engagement with education. Support needs to be tailored to individuals’ needs and we must ensure a range of education options are available
Provision of childcare services is also crucial in supporting young parents to return to education.
Source: www. schoolsweek.co.uk