Young mothers are getting back to school
In Uganda’s Buikwe District, securing adolescent mothers’ right to education is about changing people’s minds—one community meeting at a time.
The national laws in Uganda are clear: “All children have a right to education and thus all obstacles to school completion should be removed to keep girls in the schools longer.” *
However, almost a quarter of all girls between the ages of 14 to 18 do not finish school—many of them due to pregnancy.
Several inter-related obstacles prevent young mothers and pregnant girls from getting back to school. According to the Adolescent Mothers’ Education Initiative (AMEI)—a project that targets policy and practice around the continued education of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in southern and eastern Africa— some of these obstacles are related to the attitudes of parents, teachers, faith leaders, and community members.
Supported by Education Out Loud and implemented by World Vision UK in cooperation with Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, World Vision Zimbabwe, World VIsion DRC, The Education Coalition of Zimbabwe, and The Coalition Nationale de l'éducation pour tous en République Démocratique du Congo, AMEI is tackling this issue at the community level, talking face to face with leaders, arranging community meetings, disseminating official policies, and appearing on local radio stations.
“If we want to make a positive change, we need to change people’s minds.”
— Lawrence Iga, Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER)
Identifying the issue
In the Buikwe District, a largely rural area along the shores of Lake Victoria east of Kampala, the AMEI project is still in its early stages. But the initiative is welcome, says Reverend Canon Geoffrey Kagoye of the Anglican Church of Uganda Mukono Diocese.
“Pregnancy among girls is a bigger problem than anyone can imagine.”
— Reverend Canon Geoffrey Kagoye of the Anglican Church of Uganda Mukono Diocese
What happens to the young mothers?
Ms. Nakayiza Amina, Headteacher of the Uganda Muslim Education Association primary school in Kisimba, has a passion for helping the girls. Once a young mother herself, Ms. Amina was helped back to school through the support of her family and went on to become a leader in her field. But her story is not common. The consequences of teenage pregnancy are dire: the girls drop out of school and are often kicked out of their homes or kept isolated at home.
As a headteacher, Ms. Amina welcomes the girls back to school while they are still pregnant. But she says they feel stigmatized and sometimes choose to leave.
Yet Ms. Amina maintains a level of optimism. At her school, senior women and men from the community volunteer to teach basic life skills—including sharing the problems of early pregnancy—to both girls and boys. Chairperson of the school’s management committee, Mr. Gitta Muhammed, also leads a technical school where girls can master professional skills from beauty treatments to repair work.
A tale of two houses
On each side of a winding country road, two houses tell almost the same story: Zaina Namwasa and Sylvia Namuswe both became pregnant while still in primary school. In each case, the father was a young local boy who ran away.
Zaina, 16, is still expecting. Like her neighbor across the street, Zaina grew up with a single mother who was often away for work. According to her mother, Zaina was chased from school when her pregnancy was discovered and will only be allowed back after giving birth.
Once Zaina has nursed her baby for a few months, Zaina’s mother is willing to take care of her grandchild. Zaina hopes to go back to school then, and to eventually become a doctor.
Across the street, Sylvia Namuswe gave birth when she was 14 years old. She is now 15 and lives with her mother, and four younger siblings. She says she wants to go back to school if the opportunity arises. For now, she needs to work so that she can contribute to the family’s needs. She spends most of her days on the shore of Lake Victoria picking up and selling small fish that the fishermen drop from their bags.
Support from local government
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for the Buikwe district Ms. Nankindu Betty strongly supports AMEI. She points out that both formal education and the informal teaching of life skills are key to preventing the problem from continuing into the next generation. She also stresses the importance of ensuring that the affected girls are given a chance to learn and have hope for the future.
“4,900 girls became pregnant in this district in 2022 alone. Justice must be sought for these girls so as to secure their future.”
— Ms. Nankindu Betty, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Buikwe district
As part of AMEI's advocacy work, ISER and other consortium members are advocating for healthy, educated, responsible adolescents, promoting positive parenting and raising awareness of the negative consequences of teenage pregnancy.
According to the constitution, the age of consent in Uganda is 18 and suggestions to introduce methods of birth control among girls aged 15 and above have been met with fierce opposition from the government. This means that AMEI cannot freely discuss contraception as a preventative option among children below 18 years.
AMEI is also working with boys to challenge harmful gender norms, promote healthy relationships, and delay sexual activity. One way this is achieved is through focus group discussions (FGDs) for boys, on issues such as the importance of supporting pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. Another focus point for AMEI is going up against stigmatization of pregnant and young adolescent mothers in schools.
The Chairperson of the Local Council III Najja Subcounty, Buikwe, Mr. Patu Musa Lukwago, believes more and more people are now recognizing that the effort is primarily about securing a better future for the girls, and not about whether one approves of teenage pregnancy or not:
“The project has resurrected the minds of parents, to continue helping their children with education since pregnancy is not the end point.”
— Mr. Patu Musa Lukwago, Chairperson Local Council III Najja Subcounty, Buikwe
With collective efforts, pregnant girls will be back at school
The Ugandan constitution guarantees the right to education for all children, but its guidelines say that any girl who becomes pregnant must leave school at 3 months of pregnancy and can only return 6 months after giving birth. AMEI is working with other organizations to ask the government to revise these guidelines so that a pregnant girl can continue her education until she decides she wants to leave and return when she is ready.
However, despite the constitutional right of all girls to receive education, some community leaders remain reluctant to allow girls back to school while still pregnant. This demonstrates that changing entrenched views based on harmful social norms takes time and requires work within the community as well as legal change.
“If we are to allow pregnant girls to be at school, what kind of message would we be sending to those who are not yet pregnant?”
— Father Bwenvu Gerald, Lugazi Catholic Church Secretary for Education
Like many of his peers, Father Bwenvu Gerald states that the problem could be avoided in the first place by addressing the core issue of poverty and child labor. He also stresses the importance of guidance and counseling at all levels.
But counseling is hard, says the District Education Officer of Buikwe, Mr. Musasizi Kizito Julius. He points out that even if the district pushes for an agenda of supporting the right to education, the parents need to be on board too.
“Behavior change is a continuous thing, not a one-stop thing.”
— Mr. Musasizi Kizito Julius, District Education Officer of Buikwe
Secretary for Education in the Buikwe Muslim district Dr. Ntale Edrisa explains that while the Muslim fraternity has embraced the initiative and has instructed their sheiks to allow children access to schools, some community members, including parents, continue to deny many pregnant girls the opportunity to go back to school. Calling for further sensitization to the rights of young mothers to education, Dr. Ntale Edrisa is hopeful.
“With collective effort, there shall be a better future for the girls. “
— Dr. Ntale Edrisa, Secretary for Education, Buikwe Muslim district
According to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (2016), 1 in 5 women in Uganda begin sexual activity before age 15, and 1 in 4 adolescent women aged 15–19 are already mothers or pregnant with their first child.
The Ministry of Education and Sports conducted a study on Linkages between Teenage Pregnancy and School Dropout in Uganda in 2015. The study established that the school dropout rate due to pregnancy among girls of 14 to 18 years of age is 22.3%.
*Quoted from “Revised Guidelines For The Prevention And Management Of Teenage Pregnancy In School Settings In Uganda,” Ministry Of Education And Sports, 2020.