• Authored By: Medard Kakuru
22 Dec 2021

The Minister of Education Janet Museveni has directed all schools open on January 10, 2022. This is a welcome intervention. However, for the opening to be meaningful and successful, key interventions in critical sectors are imperative.

Particularly, one of the most pressing concerns of the education sector is curbing the potential high rate of teenage girl dropouts due to either pregnancy or breast feeding. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) indicates that a total of 551,235 teenage pregnancies were registered between March 2020 and June 2021, representing 26.9 percent of the total teenage girls enrolled. The percentage could even be higher if every teenage pregnancy was reported.

Medard Kakuru, EPRC Research Analyst

The National Planning Authority projects that 30 percent of the learners (about 4.5 million) are not likely to go back to school due to teenage pregnancies, early marriages or child labour. The exponential increase in school dropouts will increase economic vulnerability, dependency ratio, widen and deepen poverty and education gap between males and females, hence reversing the gains made in empowering the girl child.

To ensure safe retention of the girl child, government has said that pregnant and breastfeeding learners will not be denied access to education when schools re-open. Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) in December 2020 published “Revised guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in schools”, which among other things directs all schools to prioritize the admission of pregnant and breastfeeding girls.  The guidelines also provide directions to schools on how to tackle stigma, discrimination, and violence against learners who are pregnant or are parents.

Retaining girls in school is important to the country’s future. Photo by Student HUb Uganda/ Kelvin Atuhaire

Whereas the guidelines are a step towards addressing teenage girl dropouts, there are some notable gaps. Firstly, the guidelines do not address the issue of provision of special needs such as maternal nutrition and child care services at school, which are critical for smooth learning of the young mothers. Maternal nutrition is critical due to heightened nutrient needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding, short of which weakens a woman’s ability to survive childbirth and give birth to a healthy baby. This in turn translates into increased morbidity and mother/infant mortality. Poor maternal nutrition results into lethargy and weakness, which affect the mother’s ability to study.

Secondly, child care services are needed to enable learners concentrate on their studies, otherwise, some may not go back to school due to the child care burden. In a recent Al Jazeera’s interaction with some Ugandan teenage girls, a 15-year-old girl who has become pregnant twice since the March 2020 lockdown said “Where do I take the children? Who will look after them for me? How will I get the money to feed them if I go back to school?” Due to the child care burden, the girls has decided not to go back to school. This girl’s case is not an isolated one.

There are indications from MoES that government has already released 50 percent of the Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE) capitation grant to schools but the grant does not provide for the special needs of pregnant/breast-feeding learners. Going by past experiences, parents are unlikely afford to pay for the special needs. The 2019/20 Uganda National Household Survey reveals that six in every ten persons aged 6 – 24 years that left school did so due to inability to pay for school uniforms and some other basic materials. This implies that any attempt to increase charges to cater for child care services and special nutritional diets at school will exacerbate school dropout.

Government needs to re-allocate some of the funds meant for co-curricular activities in the UPE/USE capitation grant to fund child care services and special meals for pregnant/breastfeeding mothers. Co-curricular activities include athletics, debates, foot/net/volley ball, music, dance and drama; and scouting/guiding. Relocating some funds from co-curricular activities is not to imply that they are not key for the learners. However, to redeem the time lost during the lockdown, class learning should be prioritized for learners to catch up.

Government also needs to sensitize parents to contribute to education needs despite the free education (UPE and USE) policy. The Education Act (2008) stipulates that Education is a shared responsibility among Government, households and community. As such, there is need for comprehensive sensitization to the other parties to understand their roles and responsibilities in the implementation of the UPE/USE policy, especially pertaining to payment for education support services.

As a way forward, parents, schools, and government must bear in mind that pregnant and breastfeeding learners are coming back with special needs and therefore plan accordingly. Resources to facilitate this can be leveraged from the capitation grant component meant for co-curricular activities in the short term, and parents’/households’ contribution.

The author is a research analyst at the Economic Policy Research Centre.

Featured picture Credit: Relieved Hearts Foundation

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