Pregnant girls will take at least one year of maternity leave, under the Ministry of Education revised guidelines on school retention and re-entry.
The guidelines are in a bid to ensure that pregnant girls stay in school.
According to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey (UDHS), 25% percent of women age 15 to 19 are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. This implies that at least one in every four teenage girls is pregnant or has already had a child.
In addition, pregnancy contributes 25% to the school dropout rate in Uganda, according to the gender technical advisor in the Ministry of Education, Angela Nakafeero.
Previous studies have also shown that pregnancy is the reason many girls drop out of school.
In a 2011 Forum for African Women Educationalists survey conducted in 20 districts of Uganda, it was established that pregnancy accounted for 34% of the dropout rate. Much earlier, in 2002, a total of 8,116 girls countrywide dropped out of school due to pregnancy.
Of these, 6,229 were upper primary pupils, while 2,353 were O’ level students. The year before in 2001, 8,201 girls had dropped out for the same reason, up from 3,966 in the previous year. Again, in both cases, the majority were either upper primary and high school students.
Nakafeero hopes that if the girls are granted maternity leave, it will make a difference.
“Our suggestion is that girls should be given maternity leave from the sixth month of pregnancy to go and prepare for childbirth. After one year, she can go back to school and continue with her studies,” Nakafeero said.
“Pregnancy can take a toll on an individual. We are saying that if a girl constantly feels unwell, let her go back home until such a time when she feels she is able to return. Some girls face stigma from the community as soon as the bump begins showing. If she is able to carry on until the eighth month, well and good,” Nakafeero told New Vision in an exclusive interview, just after a meeting on menstrual hygiene management and sexual reproductive health rights in schools in Kampala.
However, the proposal has drawn mixed reactions. Critics argue that it shows lack of respect to their counterparts.
“It is like you are giving them a reward for engaging in premarital sex. It is like you are saying it is okay to get pregnant,” says Jonathan Oyako, a 60- year old retired tutor.
“If you expel them, their peers will know that it is bad and they will not engage in sex,” argues Oyako.
Esther Namubiru, the head teacher of St. Paul Primary School in Wakiso district agrees and says pregnant teenagers should not be handled with “kid gloves for their carelessness.”
“Young people should know there is a price to pay for their actions. That is the world we live in.” she says.
However, Nakafeero counters: “Why condemn a victim and ignore the perpetrator? None of these girls intends to get pregnant. Some are coerced into sex by men who initially pretended to give them care or the things they need. Others have been defiled by their own teachers and family members- the very people who are supposed to protect them.”
The UDHS also shows that 37.7% of the adolescents lack knowledge on their sexual reproductive health, while an appalling 51.6% are not involved in making decisions about their health.
As such, many are taken advantage of. The Demographic Survey found that among women aged 20 to 49, 15% were married by age 15, and 49 % were married before their 18th birthday. Girls were often married to much older men; they lacked awareness of their rights and cannot negotiate for protected sex and use of a contraceptive method.
At the same time, for many young people in Uganda, there is the limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and services that could help young girls avoid or delay pregnancy.
The consequences are dire. Many girls are resorting to unsafe abortions in their desperate desire to get rid of the unwanted pregnancies.
In Uganda 297,000 unsafe abortions are done very year, and of these 140,000 abortions happen among girls between the ages of 15 and 24, according to UNFPA.
The UDHS also shows that 17.2% of the maternal deaths in Uganda are due to teenage pregnancies.
“Some of these girls have lost lives trying to get rid of the unwanted pregnancies. That is why we are saying that school authorities should cooperate with parents and give the girl moral support so that she can have her baby and return to school after one year,” says Nakafeero.
“Running away from the girls at the most time of need will not help us,” she says.
Hope Nankunda, the Central Region Coordinator of Girls Not Brides says many teenage pregnancies have resulted into child marriages.
“Parents force the girl to get married to the man responsible for eh pregnancy but the girl is still young to deal with the challenges that come with marriage,” says Nankunda, who is also a team leader at Raising Teenagers Uganda.
“Education is the only weapon we can use to change this world. So we must encourage girls to stay in school,” she adds.
At Kasambya Secondary School, in Mubende, more than 20 girls have been given a second chance to continue with their education since 2010. Lawrence Lumbuye, the head teacher, says the teen mums have by default turned out to be peer educators.
“They openly talk about their experiences. Show me a girl who openly says: I also want to be pregnant! No one. In addition, many of them come back determined to concentrate on their studies,” he says.
New Vision spoke some some teen mums have gone on to excelling in different paths.
“I wish I had known better. But I am glad I went back to school than being married off,” says Rosemary, 23, “I am studying to be a midwife.”
Nankunda agrees: “When a teenage girl gets pregnant, it should never mean the end of the education.”
Many studies have linked education to the health needs of the family as well as lower fertility rates.
Women with education are more likely than uneducated women to use contraception, marry later, have fewer children, and be better informed on the nutritional and other needs of children.
“They take charge of their lives. This reduces dependency ratio and support costs for children. It frees up resources, allowing families to save and invest more which boosts the country’s economic productivity,” says Dr. Jotham Musinguzi, the director general of the National Population Council.
Nankunda cautions that maternity leave will not be the magic bullet to dealing with teenage pregnancy.
“The government should consider recruitment of professional counselors in schools so that girls have someone they can confide in once they need guidance. We must educate girls about the dangers that come with early pregnancy and why they must concentrate on their studies,” she says.
Nakafeero says the Sexual Reproductive Health policy is in the pipeline. It seeks to, among other issues, equip adolescents with age-appropriate reproductive health information.
Once approved, Nakafeero hope that the policy will make a difference in guiding students to make informed choices.
“When it comes to puberty, the challenges are enormous, especially for adolescent girls. We need to manage issues of sexuality, by counselling them and encouraging them to abstain until marriage,” said Nakafeero.
With Uganda’s unmet need for family planning at 28%, there is also a raging debate on whether adolescents should be given contraceptives. Proponents say it family planning methods were freely given to the youth, there would be a difference in combating teenage and unwanted pregnancy. In 2015, Uganda developed the costed implementation plan to scale up family planning to 50% and reduce the unmet need for contraception from the current 28% to 10% by 2020.
Globally, more than 300 million women are using modern contraceptives across the 69 countries where progress is measured, according to statistics by the 2016 Family Planning 2020 report. There is a global partnership to ensure that by 2020, an additional 120 million women in several countries have the ability to access and voluntarily use a method of modern contraception.