Revisit policy on education of teen mothers

Author: Augustine Bahemuka. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • One of the eventualities that emerged during the protracted school closure was the teenage pregnancy crisis. The statistics of this grim reality, which was not unique to Uganda alone, were mind-boggling.

It is nearly three weeks into second term of this academic year following Uganda’s unprecedented closure of schools as a measure to curb spread of Covid-19.

 One of the eventualities that emerged during the protracted school closure was the teenage pregnancy crisis. The statistics of this grim reality, which was not unique to Uganda alone, were mind-boggling.

Then came the tough and sometimes, stony-hearted debate of whether teen mothers and their pregnant peers should be allowed to resume their education when schools reopened in January 2022. Sympathisers took comfort in government’s directive that all learners, including teenage mothers, should resume school.

However, findings from a recent study by John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre titled Covid-19 Pandemic: Bottleneck to the Education of Teenage Girls in Uganda reveals that government’s policy to allow pregnant teenagers back into schools was ambiguous and remained silent on critical concrete issues.

For instance, whereas government directed that pregnant teenage learners should resume school, there was no mention of penalty for parents who intentionally refused to return their children to school.

 Even more, whereas the policy supported school returning, it was less pronounced on practical support mechanisms for these teen mothers to remain in school, most of whom are living in poverty, which itself is cited by the study as a push factor for early marriages. Here, I have highlighted three reasons why revisiting this policy is crucial. 

First, the significance of collecting credible data country-wide of all learners affected by the teenage pregnancy crisis cannot be overemphasised. Only then can proper planning be done and support mechanisms be designed and implemented for the affected children. We can apply efficient approaches, such as design thinking, to ensure concerted interventions, however, credible data is a prerequisite. 

The study makes a relevant connection to government’s National Development Plan III, which seeks to optimise the demographic dividend by ensuring that young people, who constitute 75 percent of the population, are healthy, appropriately educated and adequately equipped with skills required for the job market. This should stir government to address this crisis, preferably with an inter-ministerial approach so that all critical areas are considered, at least to the extent that long-term success of its own cornerstone plan is built on young people.

Secondly, there is need to examine the preparedness and ability of schools to accommodate teenage mothers in a way that will encourage them to persevere and remain in school. This was one of the hindrances foreseen by those who berated the idea of having pregnant teens in school.

The study cited some issues that demonstrate how unprepared schools were to receive this vulnerable group of learners: inadequate support mechanisms, lack of scholastic materials for use at school; teachers untrained in handling teenage pregnancies; bullying and name-calling by other learners which caused stigma; and inaccessibility of special needs required by expectant women, which would equally apply to pregnant adults.

 However, desirable as it is, special treatment for the pregnant teens within the school environment may be problematic.  For instance, would this extra support pseudo-legitimise teenage pregnancy among the other learners?

Lastly and closely linked, government and stakeholders could ponder over establishing “hybrid” schools which are designed to meet both academic and psycho-social needs of this vulnerable group of learners.

The differentiator of such schools is friendly environment provided to the learners. Among other activities and programmes, they will attend classes, but also receive counselling to help them realise the repercussions of the reality amidst them, but also appreciate that there is still room to do better. Serene Haven School located in central Kenya is one such place that has created safe learning environment for pregnant and nursing teens.

A typical school day is marked with health breaks where the young mothers nurse and bond with their babies. These are bold interventions which require concerted efforts by government and all stakeholders. It is worth noting that the long-term psycho-social impact of our inaction to avert this crisis “may be the most lasting legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic” on these learners.

Mr Augustine Bahemuka is a commentator on issues of peace & society

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