March 2020 marked the unexpected and indefinite closure of schools in Uganda, one of the many elaborate steps preceding the emergency lockdown instituted by the President to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Not too long after that announcement, print, broadcast as well as social media was flooded with alarmingly headlines, all addressing the exponential rise in defilement cases across the country.
Daily Monitor of September 29, 2020, reported that between April and June, 2020, of the 2,451 antenatal care visits from six sub-counties that make up Pakwach District, at least 577 of the expectant mothers were aged between 15 and 19.
Kaliro and Buyende districts had a 90 per cent increase in teenage pregnancies during this period as reported by NBS on October 22, 2020, and these are just a few of the numbers available to us.
From ages as low as two to 17 years, children in both rural and urban communities have experienced the harsh and indiscriminate realities of lawlessness and predatory abuse, as manifested in the cases reported, pregnancies recorded and lives lost as a result of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) suffered by both girls and boys.
Majority of these are pregnant girls, who were protected by the gates and high walls of their schools. With these walls brought down by the disruptive pandemic, the children have become victims of the greater pandemic of SGBV.
Bringing me to the pertinent question that we must deeply reflect on: What sustainable plans do we have in place as a nation to safeguard the future of these children? Rather than leave it to the tasteless comments made by the President when addressing the same issue, a proactive approach targeting policy adjustments, training in prevention and control of sexual violence and development of stringent enforcement measures when faced with such cases, especially at a community and school level is a start.
The ministry of Education re-opened schools for candidates on October 15. But sadly, a large number may never resume as they have either been married off, are pregnant or are suffering the effects of this abuse.
UNEB simply came out on October 22, 2020, with a commendable instruction that all pregnant girls should be registered for the exams.
However, that’s where the problem lies. A lot of damage control is being done, but much more should have been and should still be done to ensure that we prevent such scenarios, empower and equip school-going adolescents, teachers, men and boys, churches, community members and leaders in prevention and response to cases of SGBV.
UNEB would then not have to waste resources holding press conferences to issue obvious instructions to schools. This should be a given and yet currently, the majority of school regulations state that a student is expelled as soon as they get pregnant. The rule, however, doesn’t cater for the fact that these are minors, who suffer many external factors, including defilement, which lead to their current predicament.
Pregnant girls should always be given an opportunity to live out their academic dreams, and like all victims of SGBV, are entitled to receive the necessary psycho-social support in such matters to allow them re-integrate in the school system and reach their fullest potential.
I strongly believe the line ministry, through the various bodies governing the students such as UNEB, have this capacity, without need for audacious supplementary budget requests, to institute a committee that will look into amending and transforming policies and perceptions governing such situations from the point of prevention and in the event that they indeed happen, consequently reintegration of these girls into the education system, lest we risk losing a whole generation.
The writer is a protection expert with a focus on child and legal protection email@example.com