A 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% increase in overall cases of teenage pregnancies.
Even though the numbers continue to increase, in some countries sexual and reproductive health services haven’t been a priority. Sadly, with the lockdowns lifted and schools reopened, the assumption is that all the girls who got pregnant are ready and able to go back to school and therefore must return to school as long as the policies are favorable.
Abigael’s statement is a call for deeper reflection on the rallying call for reentry policies in Africa. She calls for strategies that support acquiring knowledge and skills beyond a focus on just primary and secondary education.
Spike in teenage pregnancies during COVID-19
Educated girls become educated women who effectively compete and have opportunities to play a critical role in the socioeconomic, governance and democratic processes of their societies. COVID upended Africa’s education and development progress with gender equality in education. Teenage pregnancies have prevented many girls from continuing their education and lifting themselves out of poverty.
A recent UNICEF report shows that Malawi had a potential 35% increase in the number of girls aged between 10 and 19 impregnated in the first half of 2020 compared with the same time in 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.
Supportive re-entry policies for girls
Findings from country reports for Senegal, Malawi, Namibia and Tanzania commissioned by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) have outlined robust recommendations on reentry policies for teenage mothers.
The reports note a need for broad-based awareness of the readmission 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 governments enact policies that support girls’ reentry—for example, empowering district-level officials to ensure schools readmit girls who want to go back to school and provide friendly environments for these child mothers.
One way of achieving friendly environments is to institutionalize comprehensive counseling program for teenagers (boys and girls), mentors and other vulnerable groups in school. There is also an urgent need for a standardized curriculum for mentorship and a training program for both teachers and pupil mentors.
Keeping young mothers in school
For teenage mothers who face challenges similar to Abigael’s, the FAWE reports recommend ministries of education pay particular attention to child-headed households. What does it mean for them to return to school? What support systems can they access? Without psychosocial support, teenage mothers will drop out of school to fend for and take care of their babies.