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
4 minutes read
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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