On a cloudy morning in Buwenge town, in eastern Uganda, Mary Mutesi (not her real name) sits quietly under a tree and thinks about her life. At just 16, she has almost lost all hope of becoming the professional adult she ever wanted to be. The closure of schools in Uganda since March 2020, as part of the interventions to control the spread of COVID-19, has changed her from the innocent student she was then to a lost teenager.
“I wanted to become a computer scientist. But I don’t expect to go back to school – I really don’t,” she tells me.
Mary’s mother dumped her when she was just three months old and has never resurfaced. It is her maternal grandmother who has raised her. Mary has never seen her father and claims no one among the people she lives with knows him. Her schooling was being supported by an auntie whose retail business in Kampala is among those that have collapsed following COVID-19-induced lockdowns.
Mary was in Senior Three when schools closed in 2020. When they reopened in March 2021 for semi candidate classes, a year after they were closed, she was among those who did not return to class. Her auntie did not have money.
In June 2021, all academic institutions in Uganda were closed again following another wave of COVID-19. A few days after that closure, at a house party near her home, a cosy encounter with a stranger left Mary pregnant.
The subsequent abortion, organised by a female friend of hers aged 21, went terribly wrong and required major attention in a hospital.
“I was treated but now and again I get tremors through my body, especially on the side of the heart. I don’t know if it is as a result of the abortion or the treatment,” she tells me. “I may smile but I am not well, I am confused. I am not at school, I am not working, and I am not ready for marriage. I would have gone for a short course in fashion and design but still, there is no money for that. I am, basically, lost.”
A few metres from Mary’s home lives Rose Naigaga (not her real name), aged 19. She was in Senior Two when the lockdown started in March 2020. Two months later, she was impregnated by a man who already had a wife and three children.
“We were not schooling. We were just roaming about. I got pregnant but I didn’t even know that I was pregnant. I thought I was just ill. It is a friend of mine who noticed it and told me that I was pregnant,” Rose tells me. “I have seen a number of my friends during lockdown. Some of them are pregnant while others have given birth.”
Rose’s abortion – in a country where abortion is illegal and punishable by imprisonment (save on a few grounds) – involved the use of herbal concoctions. It nearly killed her.
Mary’s and Rose’s stories are a representation of the crisis Uganda’s children and youth, especially girls, are going through as schools remain closed.
When all academic institutions were closed in March 2020, over 15 million learners were sent home. A partial and staggered re-opening was started in March 2021, only to close the schools again three months later.
There is yet to be a detailed report on the impact of COVID-19 on children and youth in Uganda by the government or any organisation, but reports from different sources paint a grim picture.
More children have joined exploitative paid labour from which many are unlikely to come out while many girls have gotten pregnant, produced children, and some have been given away in marriage even when they are under age. This all comes with risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and death through unsafe abortions or child-bearing complications at a tender age.
Prior to the pandemic, one in every four Ugandan girls below 19 became pregnant. Busoga sub region, where Mary and Rose live, has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies and child marriages in Uganda but most cases go unreported and therefore undocumented. In a number of Ugandan communities, early child marriages are used as a source of income for families. On the other hand, reporting defilement or rape is considered not only as an embarrassment but also an opportunity to get money from the offender. Deals are often negotiated outside the legal system. With the pandemic, which has kept girls across the country out of school, the situation is expected to be worse, and visibly, it is.
Within just four months into the lockdown (March-July 2020), Busoga had reported more than 600 cases of teenage pregnancies, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP).
In Kitgum district in northern Uganda, over 1,500 girls below 19 had visited a hospital for antenatal care in just three months (March – June 2020).
Between January and April 2020 the police reported nearly 4,500 cases of defilement. The Uganda Police’s annual crime report of 2020 indicates that 14,230 girls were defiled between January and December, up from 13,613 in 2019, representing a 3.8% increase.
As we wait for a detailed study, we can, perhaps, get a clue on the extent of the problem for the girl child from public perception. A survey conducted between December 2020 and June 2021 by the NGO Twaweza shows that 79 percent of the respondents are concerned about the rate of teenage pregnancies during lockdown.
With schools remaining closed, UNICEF’s Chief of Education in Uganda, Nabendra Dahal, describes the situation for children as a crisis.
“The culture, the traditional education system, has been destroyed. Even if we open the schools tomorrow, it is just not about reopening schools. It requires rebuilding of the education system both physically and psychologically. We are dealing with a crisis,” he says.
“The education system is breaking apart, I would say, piece by piece. The school furniture is getting broken, teachers have gone into other things, the physical facilities are being destroyed, many of the children have gone into hired labour, girls have become pregnant or gotten married,” Dahal adds.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Uganda’s education system was already facing challenges to keep learners in school. According to UNESCO, the national average of learners transiting from primary to secondary in 2016 was at 59 percent. Dropout rates for lower secondary in the same year stood at 37.2 percent, up from 18.2 percent in 2013.
“Even before the Covid-related situation came in the education system was already grossly underfunded. In spite of many successes it was not able to hold all children, keep them in school and provide them with quality education. COVID only made an existing problem worse. There were problems of low quality, low efficiency, abuse of girls in schools, all that was already there,” Dahal says.
In 1997, Uganda introduced the Universal Primary Education programme. This allowed more learners to join primary school as tuition fees had been waived. Enrolment rose from 3.1 million in 1996 to 7.6 million in 2003. Out of those who enrolled in 1997, however, only 33 percent were able to reach Primary Seven. Most of the dropouts are attributed to high levels of poverty, with parents failing to meet other costs such as buying scholastic materials, sanitary pads and providing lunch, but also the quality of learning being delivered remained wanting with only 30 percent of learners in Primary Three able to read and comprehend a story meant for Primary Two, and 20 percent of those in Primary Seven unable to comprehend a story meant for Primary Two.
Learning and social status in the COVID-era
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest impact in terms of failure to access learning has fallen on children from the poorest families – and these form the largest batch of the country’s learners.
“There are three categories of children: One, children of the affluent who can afford internet, who go to international schools, who can afford private tutors. These are not affected as such. Their education is continuing through different means.
“The second group is of those who go to private schools, but not international, and to the best government schools. There is some learning going on there. Their parents are educated and may have some money to facilitate some learning.
“Then there is a large group of children who go to Universal Primary Education. Their parents are not educated or they are facing economic crisis. There is a lot of stress at home. There is no learning going on there. This is the group which is really suffering. These are the children most at risk. They were already at risk before. Their parents were not really convinced about education but even when the parents were convinced, they had economic barriers and now the situation is completely disastrous for them,” Dahal says.
“For that, even though the government does not agree, UNICEF would like to propose that we have a social protection mechanism in place otherwise even if you reopen school they are not likely to come. Their problems are too complex. This will require a solution outside education,” Dahal adds.
Down in the ditch
February 2021 should have seen an enrolment from pre-primary into Primary 1 but this did not happen. Those who had just enrolled in Primary 1, Primary 2, Primary 3; Senior 1 and Senior 2, were only in school for a couple of months in 2020 and have hardly received any distance learning.
“These have not come to school for 20 months. It is as if they have never been to school. They must have forgotten anything they learned anyway. To get them back into the learning process will require a lot of investment. Not only have they suffered learning loss, the children who come from the most deprived families have suffered mental stress, psychosocial problems, because their parents themselves are suffering. They are going through financial distress. These children will be worst off not only academically but also psychologically when we are able to restart. They are already in the ditch. We need to pull them to the surface before we can ask them to run,” Dahal says.
Dealing with the crisis
While educationists are still anticipating and planning how to handle learners when they return to school, health and social workers are facing unprecedented challenges in helping them stay safe while they are out of school.
Mary and Rose would probably have been dead by now, after their unsafe abortions, if it were not for the intervention of an NGO called Public Health Ambassadors Uganda (PHAU). Through their peer-educators, and a network of health facilities in areas where the NGO works, they help young people access sexual and reproductive health education. Where they can, they also help rescue girls who have had unsafe abortions, at no cost for the girls.
“Covid-19 hit them very hard, especially the girls, to the extent that they are now experiencing a lot of gender-based violence because they are financially vulnerable. They are dependent on their parents or partners. They are forced to do certain things that they would not have done if they were in school,” says Florence Nabukenya, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, PHAU.
“It is girls who are more vulnerable. They are the ones who get pregnant even when they don’t want to. Girls have no work. They roam around the villages where they meet boys and men. The lockdown has made more girls sexually active. You find her at the hospital and she tells you she should not have been pregnant but the lockdown”, Rachel Nakayega, a 22-years old peer educator in the town of Buwenge explains.
“The message I have for young people is that they should get involved in Village Health Team (HVT) meetings to get knowledge on how to lead their lives. It is their ignorance which puts them into trouble”, Rachel Nakayega says.
The Challenge is Poverty
“Everything that was low key is rising. Early marriages and teenage pregnancies have always been high in the eastern region but it is worse now. In central Uganda the cases are fewer but also on the rise, especially in the informal settlements. We are trying to support these people, the government is also trying but they are overwhelmed. The health facilities are overwhelmed,” says Florence Nabukenya.
PHAU and a few other NGOs teach young people about sexual and reproductive health, and partner with other organisations, governmental and nongovernmental, to provide young people with knowledge and contraceptives.
“What we do as civil society is to empower the adolescents to demand for their rights. We teach them what to do when certain things happen. We give them the information and knowledge so that they keep healthy and positive, and move on with life,” Nabukenya says. “Usually the health centres are overwhelmed with work. The moment you come and you are not sure about what you want they will shun you.”
Richard Musasizi is another peer educator in Buwenge town. He has been helping young people for over ten years.
“They get problems which they can’t tell their parents. Many of them fear to go to hospital. They come to me as an individual to help them. Many of them take me like their friendly parent. Some of them take me like their doctor – even when I am not a qualified doctor”.
“I have so much experience that most of them just call me by phone. They share my number between themselves. What I am proud of is preventing pregnancies. I have taught many young people how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. I have also helped many of those who have had unsafe abortions. I have helped them access treatment”.
“The biggest challenge I have found is that poverty is so high in this area”, Richard Musasizi continues. “Many parents for example share the same room with their teenage sons and daughters. So what the parents do at night, the kids are quick to learn. What leads them to unwanted pregnancies is that most of them don’t have information on Reproductive Health Services.
Despite local and international pressure, the Ugandan government has refused to reopen schools soon, setting January 2022 as the month during which primary and secondary school learners will return to class.
The National Planning Authority says that 30 percent of learners will never return to school due to teenage pregnancies, child marriages and child labour. And those willing return will have another huddle – accessing finances for education. Lockdowns have disrupted parents’ incomes.
“There is financial vulnerability. Their parents are also struggling. If the surviving [not pregnant or married] girls stay back home another moment when schools reopen they will definitely get pregnant, get married, it is a complex situation,” concludes Florence Nabukenya.
William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda
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