Ways to ensure Covid-19 affected girls stay in school

Children in class at Mirembe Junior School in Namuwongo shortly after  schools reopened. PHOTO | PROMISE  TWINAMUKYE

What you need to know:

  • A report from 12 primary schools in the four regions of Uganda indicates that most  school girls dropped out of school at the peak of Covid-19. What can be done to save the situation?

When the government reopened schools, they allowed teenage expectant mothers or those who had children to return to the classroom. This gave many teenage girls who would have dropped out of school at lower levels another chance at studies. 

However, was everyone prepared enough to return to school given the long time schools were under lockdown, and the after effects?

In a study released by UNFPA, a total of 354,736 teenage pregnancies were registered in 2020, and 196,499 in the first six months of 2021.

Another recent study released by John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre  titled Covid-19 Pandemic: Bottleneck to the Education of the Teenage Girls in Uganda reveals that only 52 of 157 girls returned to school in 2022 at Oryang Primary School in Nebbi District, one of the 12 target schools.

While some pupils are optimistic about returning to school, others share a different sentiment because they feel they have outgrown the classes, fallen pregnant, or got married.

Winnie, a girl in Kamuli District dreams of going back to school and becoming a nurse after giving birth to her baby.

“After giving birth, I will go back to school, sit for PLE, join secondary school, complete Senior Four and join a nursing institute in Kamuli Town where I will become a nurse,” Winnie says. 

She believes that if she does not return to school, she will suffer in future. 

“My dream of becoming a nurse will die and I will be a woman of no class and my husband will beat me”, she adds. 

Winnie’s mother, a peasant farmer in Kamuli District, is supportive of her daughter’s decision.

No supportive parents

Unlike Winnie’s mother, there are other parents who are not willing to look after their grandchildren as their daughters return to school.

A one Kwiyocwiny, who got pregnant while schools were still closed, laments that her mother is not willing to take care of her child while she returns to school. The mother insists that the newborn needs her.

This may lead Kwiyocwiny and her peers, inclusive of those who lack tuition, end up indefinitely dropping out of school.

On the other  hand, there are pupils who no longer feel like primary or secondary school education is necessary. They prefer enrolling for vocational studies for courses such as tailoring and hairdressing.

Kacwiny Parwoth, 18, from Nebbi District dreams of  the government bequeathing them with informal programmes that will help them make an income.

“I do not see myself getting back to formal education. I need life skills to enable me to earn a living. Without such, I will have a bleak future,” Parwoth says. 

Gaps in the policy

However much the government policy has allowed all children back to school, affected girls might not go back unless some issues are addressed.

Alfred Avuni, the director of John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre in Nsambya and one of the leaders of the research on the effects of Covid-19 on teenage girls, says there are a few things to enable the affected girls to go back to school.

Encourage returning and remaining in school

The affected teenage girls need to be encouraged to go back to school. Both the government, religious and cultural leaders play a critical role in shaping the necessary narrative to influence the return of the affected teenagers to school.

These stakeholders should use their influence to ensure that parents play their role of supporting their children. This can be done through media programmes and public functions. 

Introducing a system of incentives such as subsidies to the affected girls will also help limit absenteeism. 

Schools can also be urged to help the affected teenage girls to catch up on missed learning with catch-up accelerated programmes including after-school tutoring and peer-to-peer coaching initiatives, as well as special after-school study classes.

“Introducing free school meals and hygiene kits, extra grants and financial support, tuition waivers and cash transfer programmes will help the less privileged to stay in school,” Avuni says. 

Enrolment of  female teachers

The government should enroll more female teachers to be allocated in rural schools or hard to reach primary schools to help in address the issue affecting teenage girls in schools. 

“Although the government provided a fortnight-training for teachers and head teachers shortly before the schools reopened, it is revealed that some of the schools were not prepared for handling teenage mothers and expectant ones,” says  Avuni ,adding that, with the lack of senior women teachers in some schools is harder for teenagers as they experience different body changes. 

Establishment of vocational schools

When Sr Getrude Kafuba, one of the teachers in Karamoja got a donation, she started teaching the girls vocational skills such as knitting and weaving to enhance their income.

However, when the girls started disappearing one after another and she followed them up. Sr Kafuba discovered that some  were expectant mothers while others had children and had taken on odd jobs such as stone quarrying , domestic work in different homes, and hawking .

The girls said they were breadwinners and could not keep up with the training because they needed quicker sources of income. Since they have to fend for their households, Sr Kafuba says, they lack time for  the training. 

Some of the affected teenage girls may never return to school yet they are interested in life-skill training to enable them become self-reliant in managing their families. 

“The government can use the parish development model to establish vocational schools and skill-acquisition centres to facilitate pupils that no longer feel comfortable going to school,” Avuni says.

He adds that, “These, among other incentives can boost education for girls that may have been affected by the two year-long school lockdown due to Covid-19.”

The bad

According to Omara Djegeti Orech, a senior education officer in Lira District, the education journey and the prospects for better future will shatter if pupils do not return to school.

“The only job opportunity in their docket will be casual labour. They will become poor mothers who cannot support their children and may as well end up abandoning their children,” Orech says.

Avuni says during their study, one of the respondents in Kamuli District revealed that there were scenarios where many missed out on gigs that demanded knowledge of English.