As schools reopen, the impact of the Covid-19 school closures on teenage girls and its adverse negative effects on their education are becoming clear. Worrying reports from different countries across Africa indicate that hundreds and in some cases thousands of girls are either pregnant or married, or both.
Now that most schools have reopened, teenage pregnancy may stop many girls from returning to school. Falling pregnant at this tender age is very unfortunate but that does not mean that their lives should end there. They can still rise beyond this if they choose to and if society supports them. While we condemn the vice in the strongest terms possible, we should not condemn the girls to doom. Allowing girls to return to school may help to secure a brighter future by providing them with a foundation that will help them to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
One of the pillars of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is the pledge to leave no one behind. SDG 4 seeks to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. This includes all girls – even those who have fallen pregnant. All girls have a right to education regardless of their pregnancy or motherhood status. Education is a human right. Unfortunately, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion globally.Over one-third of youth between the ages of about 12 and 14 are out of school. Sub-Saharan Africa also has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world.
As a continent that is already lagging in education, blocking girls from enrolling back in school only makes things worse. To address this, there is urgent need to provide tailored and comprehensive solutions to pregnant teens and young mothers that will enable them to access learning opportunities. These solutions should be in line with the girls’ needs and available resources. For example, while some girls may choose to go back to high school, others may opt for vocational training. Or while one may choose to go back to their former school, another may want to join a new school to avoid stigmatization. Girls should be given the option to choose the schools where they would like to continue their education.
Community engagement is key to enabling girls to return to school. By adopting a community-based approach that works with communities, parents, teachers, governments, policy makers and the affected girls, we can reach more families to make sure the girls are protected and that families are encouraged and supported to let them return to school. Such community-based child protection systems can also be very effective in ending stigmatization of pregnant teens and young mothers by their peers, parents and wider communities.
Financial barriers to education must also be addressed. Vulnerable girls are often unable to stay in school even when school fees are covered because of other expenses. Financial aid programs such as unconditional cash transfers can help families to cover indirect schooling costs. If at all a young mother is to be supported to go back to school, then we should try to relieve her from worrying about buying school uniform on top of worrying about providing for her child. Cash transfers can effectively address the financial barrier in enabling girls to return school. At ChildFund, we are implementing an unconditional cash transfer program in 9 countries in Africa that is enabling families to meet their basic needs including access to education. So far, 84,235 families have received 2,690,972 USD.
Governments should also adopt laws and policies that fully support reentry of young mothers to schools without stringent conditions and lift any existing regressive policies that discriminate against pregnant girls. Such policies should not only manage the reintegration of adolescent mothers into schools, but should also advance the prevention of adolescent pregnancy. In addition, schools should be monitored to ensure total compliance. They should welcome young mothers back to school without imposing stringent conditions and ensure that they study in environments that are supportive, free of discrimination and conducive for learning.
If truly we must leave no child behind in the quest for universal education as envisioned in SDG 4, then the right to education of pregnant girls and young mothers should be guaranteed. All stakeholders in the education sector, including governments, policy makers, schools, parents and communities must work together to give this vulnerable group the opportunity to continue their education. Protect pregnant girls’ and young mothers’ right to education, do not discriminate against them.