Send correct message for girls to stay in school

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

“ Let us meaningfully open up space for girls and support them." 

I watched a senior educationist and policy maker argue that it was good to allow pregnant girls at the time of reopening schools to return. 
Some politicians also argued, that it was about giving girls equal opportunities and upholding their right to education, suggesting there was no confusion about this decision.
 As such, some church leaders were on the spot, for saying it was not the best decision. And teachers have wondered how this is supposed to work.

I would be the first to defend the right of girls to go to school. I have not read the policy that allows girls to attend school while pregnant to appreciate where government is coming from and how this is supposed to be implemented beyond opening doors to schools. Sometimes, these are the policy actions that make people remind women that they have been given equal opportunity. 

There are many things not sitting right with this policy when applied in a blanket manner. In principle, the door is open for these girls but we know a greater majority will not return anyway.
Throughout the last two years, we have seen staggering numbers of teenage expectant mothers. Equal opportunity would mean protecting these girls in the first place. I cannot imagine, if these girls all return to school, what it means for school administration. 
We ought to be truthful about these things and how to fix them. We should tell our girl children as often as possible, as parents and teachers, that pregnancy when they are not ready will cost them something. Understanding these costs helped keep some  in school.

I grew up in the village and all I can say is that it is difficult to go through school in some environments. Besides the temptations to fall off school, the whole environment can be so punishing for young girls that getting married before time or pregnancy all seem like viable options from going to school at that age. With modern cultural influence, things are more complex. We will not fix that by allowing girls to stay in school pregnant.
We have to stop sending mixed messages to these girls. We need to help them know that being in school is a real opportunity to escape poverty and ignorance thus emphasising the benefit of education. That losing sight of the goal to finish school has some consequences. 

One, the bottom line is that it is not okay to get pregnant while at school, and to avoid getting involved with men early in their life. If reproductive and sexuality education has to achieve anything, it is getting that message across to young girls to help them focus. Reading Straight Talk and Drama series on HIV/Aids were quite sobering. Not sure what is there now. 
Second is that a girl who gets pregnant in school will lose school time. Still, it is not the end of the world, they can return to school, but after they have safely delivered. In developed countries, such kids are sometimes adopted to allow the girls pick up.
Third, girls have to know that depending on their circumstance, pregnancy could mean end of school. They are better off avoiding this situation in the first place. Their dreams will be shattered and they could live a life of poverty.
Fourth, because they are so young and without proper care, they could die, God forbid. They could contract diseases or die of pregnancy-related complications. Their future is thus cut short. If I could, I would go to every school telling each girl just these things, so that they do not lose sight of school. 

Let us meaningfully open up space for girls and support them. The policy should make it clear, that girls will be encouraged to return to school. Maybe the head teacher can check on them, keep track and ensure after they deliver they are supported to return to school. Some organisations have been supporting girls to return to school after pregnancy. 
I know ladies who weathered that storm of pregnancy and endured some bad years but returned to school more focused and are now thriving professionals. 
School will always be there. Adult and mature entry to higher learning institutions exist to demonstrate that just because you had a bad break along the way does not mean you cannot return to school. In the case of pregnant girls, we should care about their safety. 

Years ago, I did research in northern Uganda testing the rights based approaches to development and focused on the right to education. My conclusion was that human rights made little sense in environments where capabilities and choices were at odds with one another and in different directions. 
There are millions of girls and boys staying out of school in Uganda despite free primary and secondary education for different reasons. 
If we care about the right to education, we need to look holistically. The right to education has many determinants to succeed, especially for girls. 

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       [email protected]


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