COVID-19 | EDUCATION |
Asked about his experience with COVID-19, Eddie Senyonga, a builder, says: "I am worried, stressed and anxious about my 16-year-old daughter."
Senyonga, a resident of Kazo in Kawempe division, Kampala district spends a lot of time away from home, working on a site in Mityana district.
With children out of school, he leaves his daughter at home with his wife (the girl's stepmother) and his two younger children, aged five and seven, both of whom are boys. What worries Senyonga is his wife's brother who came to stay with them.
"He is a 21-year-old university student and I doubt whether he feels parental towards my daughter. I am worried about what could happen now that they spend a lot of time together with nothing to do. My daughter is naïve and can easily be misled into sex. When I discussed my worries with my wife, she got angry and accused me of wanting to get rid of her brother. I really do not know what to do," Senyonga narrates. His concerns over his adolescent daughter have been real to many parents since the closure of schools on March 20.
Anxiety and violence
Not going to school for all this time has caused a lot of stress and anxiety among young people, especially those in candidate classes, notes Dr Timothy Opobo, the executive director of Africhild Centre. The centre, which is based at Makerere University, focuses on researching about children's issues so as to improve their welfare.
Sadly, this comes at a time when many people in homes are stressed and prone to violence. Thus, Opobo says, young people have also been affected by the violence in the homes and communities. From his findings, it was clear that children were being abused by people close to them.
"During this time, children are spending a lot of time with potential abusers. The risk of child abuse, regardless of whether it is physical or sexual for girls or anything that causes emotional and psychological pain to children,has heightened right now."
The closure of schools not only left many young people idle, but has also denied some a safe haven from violence, says Moses Bwire, the founder and team leader at Peer-to-Peer Uganda, a youth-led organisation focusses on bringing about social transformation among vulnerable youth.
Bwire adds that being out of school means that young people have lost access to several such services and the right information for them to make informed choices because it was easier for them to be mobilised for the services at school.
More so, organisations that carry out outreaches for young people in communities minimised their field visits and community programmes as required in fighting the spread of COVID-19. In addition, young people fear to seek such services from health centres in their communities for fear of being identified and many do not have the means to travel to other places to access such services, notes Fahad Tibiita, a project officer with Public Health Ambassadors Uganda. The organisation promotes sexual, reproductive health rights services, especially family planning, for young people (10-24 years).
Tibiita, who works with communities in Iganga and Jinja districts in eastern Uganda, says there is a huge reduction in the number of young people accessing services. For example, he notes that last year, over 600 young people received family planning services in a period of five months between January and June. However, this year, not even half of that number have received the same services.
This is worrying because many young people are now idle and engage in risky sexual behaviour, which has predisposed them to unwanted pregnancies and related problems such as unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections, Dr Richard Idro, the president of the Uganda Medical Association and consultant paediatrician, says.
Tibiita adds that health providers in the facilities he works with are reporting an increase in the number of younger people seeking abortion services and post-abortion care.
In Luwero district, Joyce Namigadde, the senior probation and social welfare officer, says her office has recorded more cases of defilement, teenage pregnancies and abandonment of teenage mothers. On the day of the interview, she had handled three cases of teenage pregnancies and six of abandonment.
However, Namigadde decries the fact that parents and guardians only report cases of defilement and teenage pregnancy when they involve abandonment.
"Where the responsible man or his family agree to look after the teenage mother and the baby, families do whatever it takes to protect him," she says.
Tibiita adds that parents are also giving out their children for marriage in order to get bride price to help them with their financial needs during this difficult time.
Bwire observes that young people living with HIV and AIDS are also struggling to access treatment. Restrictions in movement has disabled young people with HIV from accessing their social support, Opobo says.
Not in COVID-19 response
Bwire says in spite of all the unique challenges, there are significant gaps in the COVID-19 response for Uganda's youth. The Government's response has mainly focused on promoting learning at home. Nothing on the challenges presented to the other aspects of their lives, Bwire says.
He gives an example of no targeted relief allocated specifically to the country's youth-led and youth-focused organisations.
"There are also no youth-led or youth-focused organisations represented on the National task force in response to COVID-19," Bwire observes.
Opobo advises parents not to neglect their responsibilities, even amidst the stresses they are facing.
"Parents are the primary point of responsibility for their children. They must provide for their children, be role models to them and avoid acts of violence to themselves or the children," he says.
Tibiita urges parents to talk to their children about sex and sexuality so that they can make informed decisions.
In addition, Opobo urges adults to be their neighbours' children's keepers. If they notice cases of children being abused in the neighbourhood, they should not keep quiet, but report them to the Police or the government toll free line, 116.
They also call upon the Government to take a more comprehensive approach to addressing the pandemic. Opobo says the Government is taking a more medical and patient-centred approach on COVID-19 and ignoring the other effects of the virus.
"The Government should strengthen social protection systems. While the current approach might curtail the spread of the virus, it does not address more complicated and difficult social issues that will emerge in future. Social protection structures are needed to address social needs and social issues, especially for young people," Opobo says.
Bwire calls for youth involvement in fighting COVID-19, especially when it comes to communicating behavioural change to their peers.
He says they can pass on helpful information better to their fellow adolescents.
What govt has done
The schools closure was cushioned by funding media education programmes. The Ministry of Education and Sports developed a harmonised learning framework and self-study materials in all the core subjects for primary and secondary learners. These materials are being used to deliver lessons on radio and TV, while the printed ones are being used for self-study.
The self-study materials were handed to resident district commissioners or Chief Administrative Officers who distributed them to learners free of charge.
In addition, the Government explored the idea of distributing radio sets to homes so that they can be used in learning.
The Government, through the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has innovated a telephone app that enables survivors of gender-based violence to report cases confidentially. SafePal app is a digital platform created to respond to the challenge of the low levels of reporting gender-based violence.
Through the SafePal platform, survivors are virtually linked to service providers for psychosocial, legal and medical support. Service providers include Action Aid, Naguru Teenage Centre and Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) as well as the Uganda Police Child and Family Protection Unit.
There is also a national toll-free child helpline, 116, where social workers can attend to and counsel young people facing challenges of the lockdown.