A member of UNESCO’s COVID-19 Global Education Coalition – a coalition launched to protect the right to education during the COVID-19 pandemic – and its Gender Flagship, World Vision recently examined the issue of early pregnancy in a new report warning that COVID-19 school closures across sub-Saharan Africa could lead to increases in teenage pregnancy by as much as 65% on top of already high adolescent pregnancy rates – one in four girls in sub-Saharan Africa is pregnant before her 18th birthday.
When met with policies and practices that ban them from school, an estimated one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa alone may be blocked from returning to schools due to pregnancy once they reopen after COVID-19 closures.
Lifting the ban on pregnant girls
While a few countries across Africa – namely Togo, Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania – have laws and policies that expel pregnant girls from school and ban them from returning, many more countries across the continent prevent their return out of common practice, absence of clear policies, or re-entry policies that present other barriers or obstacles.
This has begun to change. In Sierra Leone, where 11,000 adolescent students became pregnant during the 2014 Ebola outbreak school closures and were met with the nation’s ban on their re-enrollment after schools reopened, the ban was lifted in March of this year after the ECOWAS court ruled it discriminatory.
The government is now praising this policy reversal as it anticipates similar impacts from COVID-19 and has additionally been conducting a nationwide campaign to protect girls and prevent teenage pregnancy during school closures.
In August, Zimbabwe amended its Education Act, making it illegal for schools to expel students due to pregnancy – a change that World Vision and educationalists had been advocating for years.
Elsewhere in places like Uganda and Kenya, school reopenings following COVID-19 closures will put the effectiveness of their re-entry policies to the test.
A new initiative in Zimbabwe to help girls stay in school
Lifting bans and establishing supportive policies are essential for the continued education of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers. The solutions needed to ensure the continuation of their education are, however, as multidimensional as the problem itself.
In Zimbabwe, World Vision leads the Improving Gender Attitudes, Transition, and Education Outcomes (IGATE) initiative – an A+ rated program of the UK’s Girl Education Challenge implemented in 318 rural schools in Zimbabwe.
IGATE works with networks of community learning champions, resident teachers, and peer leaders from school clubs to help girls enroll and stay in school or access community-based education opportunities like literacy and numeracy, life skills, financial literacy and vocational training.
During COVID-19 school closures, IGATE has continued to provide study guides, daily literacy and numeracy exercises, and support networks to meet the gap in distance learning for rural girls and boys.
As schools reopen in phases in Zimbabwe, the impact of the lockdown and school closures on adolescent girls is becoming clear. Early reports in some remote areas show as many as half of girls in exam classes are pregnant, married or not returning for other reasons, such as work.
While absenteeism of girls is a third higher in preliminary data, boys are also dropping out as they have moved to support themselves or their family in activities like gold panning, livestock herding or trade.