Not having caught the Corona virus does not suggest that one did not suffer the effects of the COVID19 pandemic. As many measures were taken to curb the spread of this deadly virus, the closure of schools, majorly among all, suspended the rational dynamic of most young people. This went on to last up to two years, leading many of them to either homeschool (for the privileged) or fending for life.
Many have termed life under the COVID19 pandemic as the ‘new normal’ that we have had to adjust to eventually. However, some of these adjustments have had various, life altering effects on the normative livelihoods of young people especially young women.
After a long wait, the question on how to ensure that schools reopen in an organized and considerate approach that fits the changing needs of young people, still lingers. How can schools, alongside support from key stakeholders, create a favorable environment that can acknowledge, accommodate and support our young people for whom the new normal brought new realities?
In the same interest, we aspire to achieve a higher percentage of learners resuming school with consideration of gender issues, child protection and general attention to reproductive health affairs.
Presently, young people all over Uganda face a new challenge of adjusting to their re-entry into school accompanied with their new acquired information, new attitudes towards life, lifestyles and unique reproductive health needs. Unluckily, some more than others, have experienced more adversity while attempting to resume school due to reproductive consequential results.
Considering the subsequent years after experiencing the first pandemic induced lockdown, Uganda has registered poor SRHR indicators, mostly pointing at teenage pregnancies and cases of child marriages in communities. Many young girls, especially in rural areas, have found themselves victims of early sexual activity largely through Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) practices like child marriages and defilement, with the known perpetrators identifying as their own relatives and guardians.
Following the Annual crime report of 2020 by the Uganda police, domestic violence and defilement, after assault, registered the highest number of crimes in the country then. This consequently reflects the relationship between the initial degenerating trend of SGBV and the effects of the pandemic. More often than not, these same cases of SGBV have resulted in child parents, making the situation even more dire for these young women.
Despite having a smaller number of this marginalized group taking on the decision to rejoin school, an even bigger number is likely not to rejoin if they are not given the opportunity in this urgent time.
In addition, the prominent conversations around pregnant teenage girls and the question of their return to school have provided a subtle opportunity for various stakeholders to realize the amount of dedication and attention needed to address these striking reproductive health matters. It has exposed the ideal purpose of discussing and contemplating around the issue of teenage pregnancy. It has also constructed a more comprehensive social meaning to the subject which has drawn in more thoughts from various stakeholders that are key to the course of checking and handling teenage pregnancies in the country.
What are we trying to say?
That we implore parents to invest in their children’s education as well as provide social and financial support to young women that have been faced with teenage pregnancy and its adversities. In addition, parents can strategically provide progressive age appropriate sexual and reproductive health information to their children so that they are able to make responsible, safe decisions.
We advocate for ministries like the Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development, to actively address and be present in issues of gender, education, and information in order to curb these striking SRHR issues among young people. This can be done by creating a provision for pregnant girls and young breastfeeding mothers to have choice of school, flexible school programs and implementing nationwide school programs to empower girls to attend school especially in local communities. They should also consider investment in education as a mechanism to suppress different reproductive issues that arise among young people.
We are not trying to say that civil society organizations’ tireless efforts to strengthen advocacy for sexual health policies and programs are not grounded. But we are trying to say that the discussion can be approached further at all levels. For example, developing inclusive programming that aims at providing information and skills to pregnant girls, young mothers and young people in general that can guide them on how to handle various reproductive health matters. Majorly on how to prevent teenage pregnancies, manage the condition if one happens to be in the situation, how to strategize re-entry into school and later make better reproductive health decisions. Additionally, Civil Society Organizations should also take on the task of linking pregnant girls and mothers to services in order to prevent further adversities from the pregnancy like maternal mortality rate.
We are trying to say that schools are collective hubs for all young people to learn and be empowered for problem solving and decision making. Therefore, they can be centres to offer psychosocial support programs like school-based counselling services to survivors of SGBV. Take advantage of sexual harassment trainings, tell them about pregnancy and show them that there are consequences with workable solutions. Giving urgent attention to sexual harassment and abuse cases in schools is also most important not only to protect our children from sexual abuse, but to also check on the rising numbers of teenage pregnancies and related reproductive health matters.
The prompt of this article is to reshape the conversation around teenage pregnancy and its key underlying reproductive health matters like Sexual and Gender Based Violence. To acknowledge the susceptible and impressionable nature of young people. To recognize that they are flawed, vulnerable and that their needs are important.
Precisely, if these needs are treated as essentially as they should, we collectively should be able to check future SRHR issues among young people. To support our pregnant girls and young mothers, in all capacity, we should provide information, knowledge and skills to empower them. Link them to maternal health services, protect them and their children in their fragile context and most importantly, ease their return to school. With these efforts, we shall be able to safeguard her and her generation in order to flatten their experience and to align it with that of other young people . All they require is our dynamic presence.