School re-entry policies must be effective for teenage mothers in Africa

In Africa, as elsewhere globally, teenage pregnancies spiked in many countries following pandemic-related school closures.

January 05, 2022 by Teresa Omondi-Adeitan, FAWE Africa
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4 minutes read
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A girl in class at the Nyamachaki Primary School, Nyeri County. Kenya, April 2017. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
A girl in class at the Nyamachaki Primary School, Nyeri County in Kenya. April 2017
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

“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, 15 years old, Kenya

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.

In addition to providing counseling, schools should consider day care support for such girls and, where possible, support teenage mothers and their parents in income-generating activities that support the baby and help retain the teenage mother in school.

FAWE recently launched a pilot program to support teenage mothers not only to return to school but also to run small-scale businesses to provide basic needs. The program also champions gender-responsive pedagogy training to support teachers to meet the education needs of the teenage mothers in addition to the general school population.

For girls not comfortable returning to formal primary and secondary schools, FAWE champions reentry for tertiary education, and technical voluntary education training (TVET). FAWE also supports TVET education for girls out of school. Reentry policies must also be integrated in TVET programs.

We must also move away from the narrative that boys and men are the only perpetrators of teenage pregnancies. FAWE is reaching out to boys and young men who have also 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 reentry policies. Boys and young men can also be community ambassadors to speak against retrogressive practices like child marriage and encourage girls to continue with their education.

Teen pregnancies impede girls from completing school. This contributes to perpetuating cycles of generational poverty. Re-entry policies must be in place and respond to the specific needs of the teenage mothers.

The policies must ensure not only reentry but retention and transition to higher levels of education so girls can fulfill their full potential.

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Tennage is key issue which needs great attention by all changemakers. We have a lot of such cases in Sierra Leone which am working on but it really challenging due to communities perceptions.

In reply to by Musa Konneh

Teenage mother is a very big problem is Africa, a very young girls get pregnant at tender age more investment should be made by providing sex education to our young girls unless we will continue being into trouble of girls not completing their studies and increase the large number of dependents and single mothers

The need for school re-entry policies must be underscored. However, so much more needs to happen for teenage mothers to return to school and actively participate in the learning process. From a very personal perspective, there is need for attitudinal change from the highest level policy makers down to the teenage girls themselves, their parents and community in general. I have interacted with ‘ high ranking policy makers, administrative officials, teachers, teenage girls, parents and community members who will swear by the Bible that once a mother, a girl can never achieve anything at school again. According to this thinking, the girl should just go ahead and get married.

Every time i come across such negative thinking, i think of one of my friends, currently a very successful head teacher, doing everything within her powers to support girls stay in school and complete secondary education. My friend fell pregnant in her second year of secondary education. As fate would have it , her father would have none of it, chased her away from home, blamed her mother and married a second wife. Her mother later fell into depression, fell sick and died. My friend went to live with her aged grandmother, who took care of her and later her baby. One of her uncles was touched by her my friends remorse and took her back to school. The rest as they say, is history. Today, my friend is one of those very successful, hardworking head teachers and will do everything to have a girl stay in school. Her son, is long done with school and is doing very well, a young man set to go places.
What if her uncle did not take her back to school? Where would she and her son be?

I once had a house girl who had dropped out of school years before I met her. She had a son she got in her teenage years. Since i have a school very close to my house, I offered to take her back to school. She adamantly refused! No amount of convincing worked. Her reasons? She could not forget the bullying from school mates when they learned she was pregnant then. Worse still, she could not forget the taunting from teachers, and according to her, worse from female teachers.
While this May seem an isolated case, this could be the story of so many girls who choose to return to school and who are lucky enough to receive the support from their caregivers to return to school.

I have heard school stakeholders argue that this would encourage young girls to become irresponsible since they know they will be supported. In Africa, and in particularly in Kenya where I come from, there is the belief that such a girl needs to suffer so much and feel the pain beyond description for other girls to ‘learn’ from that girl’s suffering.

While I understand that teachers may not be equipped to handle such girls( especially from the MHPSS) perspective, I think there is need to factor a lot more into teacher education. Teacher education needs to prepare teachers to handle the day to day challenges ailing our society. This is currently not the case. Teacher education also needs to transform teachers’ attitudes So that they can be agents of change.

There is need to transform societal thinking towards teenage mothers . Policy makers, administrators, leaders, teachers, community members, parents and the teenage mothers themselves MUST believe that they can still excel and should be willing to do everything to excel.

The reason why policies are never enforced is the lack of belief in the policies even by the policy makers. And so, we have policies that are never really implemented at all. They exist in writing and that is it. Policy dissemination is also quite poorly done, no simplification and the action plans if in existence are, not broken down to household level. What should a parent of a teenage girl do to have the girl return to school? What should the girl do? To who should they report and seek support from if denied re-entry( girls get denied re-entry and nothing happens to such school administrators).

What happens in situations where those who should be enforcing policies are the very people breaching the policies? I was having a casual discussion with a woman from a community that practices FGM and the revelations from her of how administrators and doctors aid families to have their girls cut was chilling to say the least.

My conclusion is, even as we have girls in hundreds of thousands not likely to return to school due to teenage pregnancies ( during school closure from the pandemic alone), very little is likely to change unless deliberate action is taken. We must push for concrete steps and solid actions. Tired as this statement may sound’ we must get out of the board rooms and reach out to the girls in the villages! I hope it will not just be the case of ‘seasonal’ noise making after which everyone goes back to their comfort zone as the poor girls continue to waste away in their villages.

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