‘I want to study to be a doctor because I want to save lives’, says Suzan, a secondary school student aged 16 from Kamuli in Uganda. But after becoming pregnant, Suzan was at risk of dropping out of school, and not realizing her dream of becoming a doctor.
During the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda, early marriages and adolescent pregnancies were heightened in different parts of the country. The Uganda Child Helpline, also known as the Sauti (a government service for reporting, tracking, responding and referring child abuse cases), reported 800 cases of sexual abuses between January and May 2020, including increases in adolescent pregnancy. According to the district health officer in charge of maternal and child health, over 3,100 adolescent pregnancies were registered in Kamuli between August 2020 and January 2021.
Youth acting for girls’ education
Global Education Coalition member, the All-Africa Students Union (AASU), together with its partner the 100 Million campaign and in coordination with local authorities, joined forces to expand UNESCO’s Keeping girls in the picture campaign across 29 African countries with the aim to ensure that pregnant girls continue learning, return to school when possible and are able to fulfill their potential.
Many parents and community members believe education stops for pregnant girls, who are often forced to drop out of school and married off immediately. According to AASU, very few young mothers resume school after childbirth due to stigma, while some schools may not accept to re-enroll pregnant girls even after the Uganda National Examination Body allowed pregnant girls in their final year to register and sit for their final exams.
‘Across the continent, young people are taking initiatives that have long-lasting impact on their respective communities’, says Claudia Quartey, Gender Desk Officer at AASU.
Youth activists and students were engaged in their respective countries, serving as country coordinators for the campaign and committing to hold African governments and decision-makers accountable to provide equal access to education for every girl. A comprehensive training took place to build the capacity of country coordinators on topics such as gender discrimination, community action and local advocacy.
Meet country coordinator Lynda Eunice Makable
‘I wanted to amplify the voices of girls whose education had been put on hold and fight for their equal right to education’, says Lynda, a youth activist aged 26 from Suzan’s district.
Lynda was inspired to join the campaign as a country coordinator because of her own experiences growing up and fighting for her education. ‘My father refused to pay my school fees at age 16 and my mother had to find means of ensuring I continue learning’, says Lynda. ‘He however continued paying school fees for some of my brothers which was unfair. I always felt I deserved to be in school just like my brothers.’
She and her campaign team provided Suzan with school fees, mentoring to stay in and complete her schooling and psycho-social counselling to help Suzan with her emotional and health needs during her pregnancy. Lynda also sensitized Suzan’s parents as well as her teachers on the importance of girls’ education, and stressed the need for Suzan and other girls in a similar situation to continue their education.
Through her engagement in the campaign efforts, Lynda found the opportunity and the platform to help change mindsets around girls’ education in her community. ‘I’ve noticed tremendous change in the attitudes of cultural, religious and local leaders, teachers, parents and girls about girls’ education’, she says.
‘Seeing how involved and dedicated the different stakeholders are in championing the right to education for girls in their different spaces, gives me hope for a better future for girls in Uganda.’
Closing in on her dream
‘The role of parents in promoting girls’ education is phenomenal’, says Lynda. Suzan found the counselling she and her parents received, and her parents’ engagement and support vital during her pregnancy. Her parents accepted to send her back to school, and this gave Suzan the confidence to focus on and continue her schooling.
Following Lynda’s intervention, Suzan registered and sat for her final exams a month after childbirth. She hopes this will help her realize her dream of becoming a doctor and she looks forward to graduating to her next level of education.
While she waits for her exam results, Suzan has been speaking to girls in her community about her experience and the challenges and stigma that come with being a young mother. She hopes to inspire them to focus on their studies and stay in school. She often holds these peer conversations at her parents’ house.
The Keeping girls in the picture campaign organized through AASU played a determining role in disseminating information on the importance of girls’ education in schools and in communities, and getting many girls back into schools. Lynda and other country coordinators have been relentless in their work to ensure girls’ continuity of learning and return to school – often working in challenging contexts and amid a persistent pandemic. Their actions demonstrate youth’s power to affect change.
‘It is important that state and non-state actors as well as international development partners take a cue from inspiring stories like that of Lynda and Suzan’, says Peter Kwasi Kodjie, Secretary General at AASU. ‘We must include students and youth activists in developing and implementing local solutions for pervasive social challenges.’