Uganda recognizes the right of pregnant teenagers to an education, but religion and stigma shut most out

Kampala – When schools reopened in Uganda in January, Atim’s baby was 3 months old. The 17-year-old was keen to get back to class but faced a dilemma – whether to tell her teachers she was a breastfeeding mother.

Atim chose to open up to some teachers who offered to help her return. The school made a provision that allowed her to secretly breastfeed the baby on its premises. The first two weeks were a challenge for the young mother. “It wasn’t easy, but I’m getting used to the students and teachers now. The teachers were really helpful,” said Atim.

She is the only breastfeeding mother at Layibi Secondary School. Most of her former classmates either got married or dropped out of school because they were pregnant. And her case is unique. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the school would not allow students who were breastfeeding to visit, lead teacher Lilian Akot told IPS.

Uganda is among at least five countries in Africa that have either lifted restrictive or discriminatory policies, or passed legislation or policies that allow pregnant students and expectant mothers to stay in school under certain conditions. Others are Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe and more recently Tanzania

“She feels free at school. She studies from the morning, then she comes out at recess and breastfeeds the child. At lunchtime she does the same. The first week it was a bit challenging. Whenever she heard a baby cry , she thought it was hers. And that tended to worry her.”

Atim told IPS that she is determined to overcome the challenges to achieve her dream.

“I thought it would be wise to go back to school because if you haven’t studied, life becomes difficult. I’ve seen people suffer in churches, especially those who haven’t studied. I have a vision – I want to study and become a better person in the future.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Uganda is among at least five countries in Africa that have either lifted restrictive or discriminatory policies, or passed laws or policies that allow pregnant students and expectant mothers to stay in school under certain conditions. Others are Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe and more recently Tanzania.

Uganda introduced revised guidelines on pregnancy prevention and management in schools in December 2020.

The guidelines require schools to give priority to mothers and postpartum girls and to provide redress to children and parents when public schools refuse to enroll them. They also provide guidance to schools on how to tackle stigma, discrimination and violence against pregnant students or their parents.

But when schools reopened in early January, Bishop Ssebagala, head of the Anglican Church, sparked the long-running debate over whether pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should be allowed back to school. He ordered all Anglican-founded schools in his diocese to ban nursing mothers and pregnant girls from attending classes, contrary to guidelines.

The bishop said that while it is fine for parents to support their pregnant daughters, it is immoral to allow them to sit in class with other children.

“When all the girls show up, do the usual medical screening so those found pregnant can go back and give birth. Imagine if someone said that even breastfeeding girls are allowed to attend classes. No, we will not accept that. How can a teacher teach when a girl gives breasts to her child?”

The schools have followed the bishop’s order, says Susan Wamala Sserunkuma, Chair of the Mukono Diocese Church of Uganda School. “The bishop has asked us not to let them out of school altogether, but to advise them not to go back to school because of the conditions they are facing,” Sserunkuma said.

“We don’t deny them an education, but we do help them live in an environment that doesn’t stigmatize them. The school can never have room for that. For example, if you’re breastfeeding, you can’t come back because you won’t have room for your baby,” Sserunkuma added in an interview with IPS.

Joyce Nalubega, a senior education officer in Buikwe district, told IPS that while public schools are willing to let breastfeeding mothers back into the classroom, schools established by churches and mosques are not.

“Foundation bodies and the government should sit together and agree on the do’s and don’ts. We respect the cultures/religions of different schools. But we can’t close the door completely. We just have to reorganize and give it a second chance,” she said. “These girls went to school to learn. But the pandemic just came. So we shouldn’t punish them.”

Pregnant girls are still barred from attending private primary and secondary schools. However, IPS found that in most public or state-sponsored schools, girls balked out of fear and stigma.

Many weeks after schools reopened, no school in eastern Uganda’s Kaberamaido district has registered breastfeeding teenagers or pregnant girls, according to education officer Richard Elyebu. “I think the problem could be embarrassment at being seen pregnant,” he told IPS. “At this point we’re saying it’s a new normal, but people haven’t seen it as normal. We could have children who are pregnant but they have decided not to go back to school.”

At the end of last year, over 3,000 girls were pregnant in Bukedea district in eastern Uganda. Education Commissioner Steven Okiror told IPS that the majority do not go to school.

“It looks like some have gotten married, others have retired, parents have been silent. There is really a big problem here. You will never come back. Parents are reluctant to give girls a second chance.”

But in neighboring Soroti district, one parent, Albert Okello, decided not to keep his daughter Aculo out of school, despite the area’s custom of parents depriving pregnant girls of an education as punishment.

“I had to think deeper and I said, ‘If I leave this girl, first of all, the boy who got her pregnant isn’t educated, he can’t be of any help to that girl’. That’s why we took her back to school.” said Okiror.

As the emotionally charged debate rages on, President Yoweri Museveni has insisted he will not agree to preventing pregnant girls from returning to school. “It’s not logical, nor is it certainly religious. If adults are going back to school in their 40s and 50s, why can’t a child go back to school? But should she go with the pregnancy? Should she breastfeed? That’s what we’re going to discuss.” ‘ Museveni said.

Atim’s message to other teenage moms and pregnant girls is: ‘Go back to school if you can. You shouldn’t be afraid, because I see that studying has many advantages.”

Uganda’s National Planning Authority predicted in 2021 that 30% of learners (about 4.5 million children) would be unlikely to return to school due to teenage pregnancy, early marriage or child labour.

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