The Covid-19 pandemic related lockdown has seen a rise in teenage pregnancies amongst school-going children in the country. Some of these cases have arisen because of sexual violence and child-neglect.
To some of these girls, this might be the end of the road of their education journey which would in turn endanger their future.
However, while it is also true that our schools do not have the capacity to take care of these pregnant girls, there is need to come up with a proactive solution to end teenage pregnancies amongst school going children in the long run.
On average, 66 million girls are deprived of education worldwide (malala.org) and this number may have gone up because of the Covid-19 Lockdown in many countries including Uganda.
Still, no longstanding solution yet. Although there is still an apparent lack of a clear and sustainable plan from stakeholders to deal with this problem now and in the future. One thing though is clear, so far, and that is rising stigmatization from different segments of society including the media.
Early marriages and teenage pregnancies remain prevalent in different parts of the country and the pandemic has only worsened the situation.
According to the Uganda National Household Survey (2016) 34% of Ugandan women are married under the age of 18 and 7.3% under the age of 15 while teenage pregnancy rates among adolescents between 15-19 years are at 25%.
Numbers aside, teenage pregnancy in society are still associated with negative connotations because some of these girls may be considered a bad influence on others.
Culturally, our society subconsciously tends to consider girls “undesirable” over their male counterparts sometimes because of factors such as patriarchy, tradition, or religion. Here, the girl child becomes prey to some of these violent hierarchies where one sex is easily preferred as opposed to the other.
This is a violent form of oppression where a person is easily stigmatized simply because they fall under a particular gender category. Anyhow, instead of inadvertently perpetuating this boy vis-à-vis girl binary thinking, society should be thinking about reversing this form of violence in the long run at least.
Society needs to think beyond these so-called cultural or gendered boundaries to make way for an all-inclusive society with open up possibilities for all.
According to UNICEF, around 1,500 girls in Kitgum below the age of 19 years had visited a hospital for antenatal care since the pandemic forced schools to shut.
Some of the offenders have been those meant to care for them like teachers and many cases go unreported because of fear of retribution. The police also stated to fear reporting the actual statistics or make arrests because some of the offenders are powerful people in these areas.
The statistics above show that sexual violence is widespread and therefore it is a systemic problem since it is widespread.
So, if Uganda has 135 districts (as per July,2020), and each district has around 1,500 pregnant girls on average, then the numbers would amount to at least 202,500 reported underage pregnancies.
This is a tragedy! If all these girls drop out of school, the country would miss out on the much-needed skills to steer our economy upwards.
This estimate would probably wipe off an estimated 1.35% off the 15 million learners Uganda has now while crushing dreams too. The ministry of Education and Sports and all stakeholders need to develop sustainable plans for continued learning including countering sexual violence as a form of oppression in the long run.
Reducing teenage pregnancies would require empowering schools with more resources, building the necessary infrastructure and probably re-thinking sex education.
During my time at school, we never had a curriculum driven sex education. Even our parents shied away from sex-related topics while emphasizing the academic side of education.
May be time is now ripe to make extra ordinary decisions regarding schools because the reality is that we are living with the effects of sexual exploitation.
I looked at the revised guidelines for the management and prevention of teenage pregnancies in school settings in Uganda,2020 but some of the language used to draft this document is ambiguous.
For instance, the guidelines only talk about sexuality education rather than sex education. More powers are given to senior women/ men who do not have any specialised training. What exactly does a “school context” mean?
These guidelines aim at removing obstacles to school completion to keep girls in school longer but instead, schools lack the required resources and infrastructure to manage pregnancy in schools.
My view is that a comprehensive plan to this situation would have to address first issues like consent, relationships, or friendship boundaries.
Unless some of these issues and more are resolved, the stigma will continue, and hopefully it does not turn to neglect in the long run because it would be a tragedy.
The writer is an advocate & a teacher with an intercultural profile