“I would like to go back to school but I do not have anyone to leave my son with. I also need money for his upkeep….. I cannot raise any income while in school” Abigael* 15years old, Kenya.
Majority of African countries recorded high numbers of teenage pregnancies during the Covid-19 lockdown. In Kenya, more than 150,000 teenage girls became pregnant over a three-month period in 2020; a 40 per cent increase in overall cases of teenage pregnancies.
The numbers continue to increase, and countries faced with the dilemma of effective ways of supporting the teenage mothers and for some countries sexual and reproductive health services was not priority.
Sadly, with lockdowns being uplifted and schools re-opened, there seems to be a blanket assumption that all the girls who got pregnant are ready to go back to school and therefore must return to school as long as the policies were favourable.
Abigael’s statement is a call for deeper reflection on the rallying call for re-entry policies in Africa, she calls for strategies for knowledge and skills beyond strict primary and secondary education.
Undoubtedly, educated girls become educated women who effectively compete and have opportunities to play a critical role in the socio-economics, governance and democratic processes of their societies.
The world, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, was faced with major social economic and political changes that impacted on education for all. Teenage pregnancies became a deterring factor to the dream of girls and young women from eradicating poverty in Africa.
UNICEF reported that before the Covid-19 crisis, reliable information or data on early pregnancies and marriages was a challenge, however the current picture painted by available information is disturbing for many girls in the Sub-Saharan region.
For example, the report shows that in Malawi, in July 2020 had a potential 35 per cent increase in the number of girls aged between 10 and 19 impregnated in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time 2019; in Uganda, it is estimated that the number of adolescent pregnancies doubled in Nwoya district when comparing January to March and April to June 2020 trends. Once schools reopened, many governments had to address the plight of teenage mothers.
Findings from country reports commissioned by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) Africa, in Senegal, Malawi, Namibia, and Tanzania have outlined robust recommendations on re-entry policies for teenage mothers.
The reports note that there is need for broad based awareness of the re-admission Policies which should ideally be driven through a multi-stakeholder approach involving relevant government representatives, civil society, school administrators, religious leaders and community-based/family structures.
The reports also recommend the government's commitment in the implementation of the policies, for example, empowering district level officials to ensure schools re-admit girls who are interested to go back to school and provide a friendly environment for these child mothers.
One way of achieving friendly environments is institutionalising a comprehensive counselling programme for teenagers (boys and girls), mentors and other vulnerable groups in school. There is also an urgent need for a standardised curriculum for mentorship and a training programme for both teachers and pupil mentors.
As regards support to teenage mothers faced with the challenges similar to Abigael’s, FAWE reports recommend to the Ministries of Education to pay particular attention to child-headed households.
What does it mean for them to return to school? What support systems can they access? It is inevitable that if psychosocial support is not given to such girls, they would definitely drop out of school to fend for and take care of their babies.
There are various approaches to proposed psychosocial support. One, for the girls ready and willing to go back to the formal primary and secondary school, in addition to counselling, schools may consider day care support for such girls and where possible support teenage mothers and their parents to have an income generating activity to support the baby and retain the teenage mother in school.
FAWE has recently launched a pilot programme to not only support teenage mothers to return to school but also run small scale businesses to provide basic needs.
The programme also champions for gender responsive pedagogy training to support the teachers to meet the education needs of the teenage mothers in addition to the general school population.
Secondly, for girls who for various reasons are not comfortable to return to the formal primary and secondary school, FAWE champions for re-entry for tertiary education; Technical Voluntary Education Training – TVET. Teenage mothers can acquire knowledge and skills to better their lives in a shorter time. FAWE supports TVET education for girls out of school. Re-entry policies must apply and be effectively considered for TVETS.
Thirdly, FAWE is moving away from the narrative that boys and men are the only perpetrators of teenage pregnancies. FAWE is also reaching out to boys and young men who have been trapped as teenage fathers. Both teenage boys and girls must be part of solution building.
Boys can be community champions for appropriate and effective re-entry policies. Further, boys and young men must be community ambassadors to speak against retrogressive practices like child marriage and encourage girls to continue with their education.
Overall, it is a well-known fact that teenage pregnancies greatly reduce the chances of a girl completing her education and this contributes to the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty. Children born to mothers who do not complete their education are more likely to not fully pursue their own education.
The onus is on all likeminded stakeholders to ensure that the policies proposed are appropriate and respond to the specific needs of the teenage mothers.
The policies must not only ensure re-entry but should address factors that will ensure retention and transition to higher levels of education and/or desired socio-economic status.
By Ms. Teresa Omondi-Adeitan, Forum for African Women Educationalists, Deputy Executive Director and Head of Programmes.