After almost two years of closure, schools in Uganda are reopening, presenting children, including young girls, with an opportunity to focus on achieving their dreams.
In 2020, Uganda issued guidelines to prevent and manage teenage pregnancy in schools, which also allowed for the readmission of pregnant girls into the education system.
However, recently, a Ugandan bishop, James Ssebaggala, called for pregnant girls and teenage mothers to be locked out of school.
Pregnant girls and teenage mothers have faced all kinds of punishment, including discriminatory practices that deny them the enjoyment of their right to education.
Leaving pregnant girls and teenage mothers behind is harmful to Uganda and any other country. Society should protect the right to education for adolescents and young people.
It is estimated that 295,219 teenage pregnancies were registered between January to early September 2021 in Uganda. In addition, according to the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, up to 22 per cent of females aged 15 to 49 in the country had experienced some form of sexual violence.
Adolescents and young people continue to face several challenges on sexual and gender-based violence. They also lack access to contraceptives and mental health services in addition to the dilemma of curfew and cessation of movement during the Covid-19 period.
Punishing pregnant girls by denying them an opportunity to go back to school is wrong. We all know how Covid-19 has affected people. Religious leaders should not be a stumbling block for adolescent girls. All girls have a right to education even if they are pregnant or have given birth.
Both society and the government have failed teenage mothers who are victims of defilement. We cannot accuse the girls of immorality. How can the Church, which failed to preach necessary morals to the young ones, take to the pulpit to condemn the adolescent girls?
Religious leaders ought to use their influence to advocate for the rights of girls. Political and religious leaders have a duty to support government efforts to ensure the protection of children’s rights and therefore Bishop Ssebagala should provide clarity on his statement or withdraw it.
Education is a right that cannot be withdrawn as a punishment. The bishop’s statement should not water down our commitment to ensure we leave no one behind in education.
Leaving no girl behind means that we should recommit to protect all children, and adopt human rights compliant policies at all levels to protect pregnant and adolescent mothers’ right to education.
It is important for girls to access quality education and support for them to benefit from an equal society. Considering that some girls may not be comfortable breastfeeding in class, governments should consider setting up babysitting centres in schools.
This writer, Doris Kathia is a youth advocate for sexual reproductive health and rights at Network for Adolescents and Youth of Africa, Kenya.