Kampala, Uganda

The future of thousands of expectant school girls, who were impregnated during a two-year COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda hangs in balance after government and the Anglican Church failed to agree on a policy that would allow them return to school.

The policy introduced by government in January allowed expectant and breastfeeding students to return to school on 10th January, after government lifted a two-year lockdown on primary and secondary schools. But the Anglican Church, which runs 40 per cent of the country's schools, rejected the policy, saying it will promote immorality in church-founded schools and that there are no facilities in schools to allow expectant and breastfeeding mothers concentrate in class. 

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Pupils at the Namalere Primary School in Galiraya Sub County, Kayunga District, Uganda, return to class after the recent lockdown. PICTURE: John Semakula.

The Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda, the Most Rev Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu, explained recently that schools are not equipped to take care of the health challenges that may emerge in the first three months of the pregnancy. 

“There are expectant girls who were in boarding schools before the lockdown and are struggling to decide whether they will manage boarding life while in their current situation,” he said.

“School owners have the challenge of providing facilities for expectant and lactating mothers. Parents also have an increased burden, living with stigma in cases where incest was the cause of pregnancies, and religious leaders are challenged to uphold the morals in face of the magnitude of social issues for which they are also victims."

- Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda, the Most Rev Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu.

The Anglican Church is the second largest religious denomination in Uganda, accounting for about 39.2 per cent of total population of about 40 million people. Catholics account for 44.5 per cent.

The disagreement between the church and government is already affecting thousands of students after primary and secondary schools in the country reopened on 10th January, after the longest lockdown in the world to be imposed on academic institutions due to COVID-19. 

Uganda already has one of the highest rates of school dropout in the world, especially among female students in primary schools. A Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports study undertaken in 150 government-aided primary schools between 2017 and 2018 indicated that 80,000 students drop out of school every year - and that early pregnancies and lack of sanitary pads are among the main causes. In addition, many schools in Uganda lack basic sanitary facilities, such as clean toilets and water for washing hands.

Government data shows that 9,000 underage girls were impregnated in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda. Many, however, believe the figure is likely higher, given that many rape cases in Uganda are not reported to the authorities by parents who fear reprisal and/or for their social reputation, let alone involvement in what can be seen as futile legal processes.

Archbishop Kaziimba said that the policy allowing expectant students to return to school must be broadly studied before it could be implemented.

“School owners have the challenge of providing facilities for expectant and lactating mothers," he said. "Parents also have an increased burden, living with stigma in cases where incest was the cause of pregnancies, and religious leaders are challenged to uphold the morals in face of the magnitude of social issues for which they are also victims.

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Archbishop Kaziimba said the church would "mobilise its members at the grassroot level including catechist, lay leaders, and local pastors into a response team to develop a framework for monitoring numbers of pregnant school girls to understand the magnitude before taking the necessary steps".

But the government has insisted that expectant learners must be allowed back to school now so that they don’t lose more time, arguing that denying them a chance to be in school is tantamount to denying them their basic right to education.

 “No learner should be denied access to classrooms even if the child is pregnant...” said the Vice-President Jessica Alupo in a statement issued recently. “Parents and teachers should amicably discuss this challenge while learners are already in class.” 

Uganda Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu

Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu of the Church of Uganda. PICTURE: Jimmy Siyasa.

Prior to introducing the new policy requiring pregnant girls to attend school, the government’s policy had previously required teachers to send home pregnant school girls at three months of pregnancy and only allow them to return when their babies have turned at least six-months-old.  

The same policy, introduced in 2020 during a wave of teenager pregnancies, also required boys who impregnated girls to be suspended along with their expectant girlfriends and only be allowed back after the latter had given birth. But, the policy received sharp criticism from educationists and human rights defenders in the country forcing the government to revise it.

The 2020 policy also required schools to examine school girls for pregnancy at least once in a term. The government argued then that sending expectant students away from school was intended to secure their health and that of the unborn babies. 

 “When you are pregnant, you go home because schools are not medical facilities. Supposing we leave you in school and delivery is due, what do we do?” argued Ismail Mulindwa, director for basic education at the Ministry of Education, at the time.

The new policy - and the Anglican Church's response - have sparked a heated debate among stakeholders in the education, health, and others sectors.

Medard Kakuru, a policy analyst in microeconomics at a thinktank, the Economic Policy Research Centre, says expectant students have no space in Ugandan schools.

“Once you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you need a place where you can go and rest but such facilities are nonexistent in Ugandan schools,” he says.

Charles Owekmeno, national coordinator of Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance Uganda, is also against the idea of allowing pregnant students to return to school. 

“Before COVID-19, we were struggling with menstrual Health and most schools could not even afford basic requirements and now you talk about pregnant learners in schools,” Owekmeno says. He advises the government to integrate sexual and reproductive health in the curriculum for lower classes to equip learners with the level of awareness to desist from early sex.

Dr Joel Masagazi, a lecturer at Uganda Christian University, argues that studying and pregnancy are two demanding programs that are very hard to combine especially by children and advised that expectant teenagers be kept out of school. He advises government to setup special centres for expectant teenagers across the country where they can access schools. 

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School children in Galiraya Sub County, Kayunga District in Central Uganda, waiting for a canoe to cross a flooded area after school recently. PICTURE: John Semakula

But Filbert Baguma, general secretary of Uganda National Teachers’ Union, told Sight that expectant students are victims of the impact of the long closure of schools due to COVID-19 and should not be harshly judged.  

"Judging them harshly means denying them a better future yet they are victims of COVID-19 like any other category of people,” he said, blaming the church for exercising double standards by welcoming expectant teenagers to church services and then chasing them away from school.

Meanwhile, Prosper Mubangizi, a research and policy analyst at World Vision, said that the cost of keeping the girls out of school is bigger than that of keeping them in school. 

“We know the benefits of education in fighting poverty and empowering marginalised groups of people," he said. "So, the cost of inaction is bigger than action. We have welcomed the [government] policy and we are popularising it, not because we support teenagers to become pregnant but because this has happened and so we shouldn’t lock the girls out of the basic necessities like education."

Compassion International Uganda said in a statement to Sight that disagreement over the policy "places us between a rock and a hard place".

"Both the Government and the Church are our partners in our efforts to advocate for children in poverty, including those in the category of 'expectant teenagers returning to school' who have been made more vulnerable by these circumstances," said the statement. "The chances of these teenagers degenerating further are high if their hope for education gets taken away. Compassion International Uganda, on the other hand, respects its Church Partners and would not impose itself on the church’s decision but can discuss with its partners how to minimize the negative effects of the real challenges of 'limited facilities for expectant mothers in school' and the fear that 'the move may promote immorality in schools'."

The statement, signed by PR specialist Aidah Agwang, added: “As an inter-denominational organization, we recognize that different churches will deal with this matter differently and we respect their positions.” 

While the debate is likely to continue for some time yet, given the Anglican policy, the government has, in the meantime, advised parents with expectant daughters to take them to government-aided schools, where they will be automatically accepted. Many parents, however, express concerns over the educational standards in many government schools.

John Masaba, a parent of two primary school children, said while it sounds morally right to allow the girls return to school, there was also an alternative argument around morality.

"If you say they should keep away from school, these are little girls who are not responsible for what has happened,” he says. “On the contrary, other children in school may feel that it’s fine to get pregnant and continue with your studies.”

Like Dr Masagazi, he proposes the creation of special centres away from the usual schools for expectant teenagers to study without attracting undue attention from other learners. 

Whether that occurs remains to be seen.