UGANDA REGISTERS 300,000 PREGNANCIES IN ADOLESCENT GIRLS, RE-ENROLL ADOLESCENT MOTHERS AS SCHOOLS OPEN- MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
By Goodluck Musinguzi
Some 5 African countries including Uganda have taken important steps in recent years to protect the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers, Human Rights Watch said.
Teenage pregnancy, parenthood, and child marriage are major health and social concern in Uganda and constitute a significant barrier for girls’ education.
According to the Ministry of Health and United Nations Data, 25 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 19 have begun childbearing, 34% of girls are married before age 18, and over 7 percent before age 15.
According to UNICEF 25 percent of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually are in adolescent girls, with more than 300,000 pregnancies ending in unsafe abortions.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, UNICEF reported a 23 percent increase in pregnancy among girls ages 10 to 24 seeking prenatal care. Many girls drop out of school permanently once they become parents, due in part to stigma in schools, the lack of support and accommodation for students who are parents, and financial barriers.
School fees and other costs in public schools constitute a significant barrier for Uganda’s most economically vulnerable and poorest families, most of whom have faced financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 restrictions that prevented many adults from working.
In December 2020 Uganda’s Ministry of Education published its “Revised Guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings,” providing a policy framework to clarify schools’ roles.
The revised guidelines include important policy reforms. They provide an unequivocal message that “all schools should prioritize the admission of the young mothers/girls after pregnancy and parents/caregivers shall report the school that has refused to admit their daughter to the district education officer.”
This provision is crucial for education authorities to ensure that all schools recognize their obligation to re-enroll adolescent mothers and provide redress for children and parents when public schools refuse re-enrollment. The Ugandan government should widely promote this aspect of the policy, and disseminate information about girls’ education through community awareness and national campaigns.
Under the policy, once schools are notified or find out that a student is pregnant, they should ensure that the student is placed in a counselling program. Head teachers are to take measures to investigate and report allegations of sexual violence. The policy also says that stigma and discrimination against pregnant girls or young mothers is a form of psychological violence, and orders schools to counter such stigma and violence in school environments. The policy stipulates that schools “shall support adolescent mothers to link to community support structures for childcare, and economic support.” The guidelines also provide flexibility to allow students who are out on maternity leave to take end-of-year examinations should they wish to, but it remains compulsory for students to take national qualifying examinations.
Although the guidelines support girls’ right to education, they present a series of strict or burdensome “re-entry” conditions that, Human Rights Watch had previously found, could constitute an effective barrier for girls. For example, the guidelines require girls to go on mandatory maternity leave when they are at least three-months’ pregnant. They can only be unconditionally readmitted when their child is at least six months old. This means girls will effectively be out of school for at least a year.
The policy makes parents responsible for seeking a girl’s readmission. Parents are expected to sign an agreement with the school about the girl’s re-entry. This assumes that parents are largely supportive of girls’ continuing education, whereas some families may try to bar girls from returning to school, particularly in cases of child marriage.
Male students responsible for a student’s pregnancy will also be given mandatory leave during a girl’s pregnancy, citing that this “might act as a deterrent and lesson to other boys.” However, unlike girls, boys are not subject to mandatory paternity leave, and will be allowed to return to school after a girl has delivered. In the case of a school change, schools are expected to share information on a male student’s parenthood status with the new school, because this would be “useful in tracking him.”
Data on any students’ pregnancy or parenthood status should respect their right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said. It should only be shared confidentially in school records as a means to support a student, to provide adequate counselling and access to services, and to accommodate their individual needs.
The guidelines state that the government’s aim to prevent teenage pregnancies through a series of measures, including problematic measures like relying on periodic pregnancy testing in schools, as well as testing all female students to avoid individual stigma against a girl who is reported or rumored to be pregnant. Human Rights Watch has found that pregnancy testing is not a preventive tool. It is stigmatizing for many girls, is often carried out without their consent, and is a serious infringement of girls’ rights to privacy, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy.