AGED 25, Ruth Nyangoma should have graduated from university and, probably, found a job. She has not. Instead, she is a secondary school student preparing to sit her A'level examinations this year at Mutanywana Secondary School Kyarumba in Kasese. Life has been trying for Nyangoma.
"I was in S.3 when I got pregnant. The man responsible for the pregnancy abandoned me. My parents were too disappointed to send me back to school after the birth of my child," she said.
She had to wait three years before going back to school, which she did after a group of teachers and students in her school talked to her parents and encouraged them to give her another chance.
Nyangoma is lucky because thousands of girls who drop out of school in Kasese due to pregnancy never return to school. Kasese is one of the districts in Uganda where school dropout rates for girls due to pregnancy are high.
According to statistics from the district education office, there were 230 to 235 pregnancy cases in Kasese schools last year. Out of these, 17 girls lost their lives during abortion. This happened in both primary and secondary schools. The average age for affected girls is 12 to 15 years.
Despite this worrying trend, the situation shows no signs of improvement. For instance, within just one term, 17 girls were found to be pregnant at Mukunyu Vocational Secondary School this year.
Eighteen pregnancy cases have so far been recorded at Kabutanda Primary School.
The district administration now fears that the gains made in girl-child education over the last couple of years might be eroded by these trends. As the world population edges closer to the seven billion mark, questions abound: What gains have been made in critical areas, such as girl-child education?
Despite the enormous efforts put in place by the Government and NGOs to ensure that more girls attend school, cases like Kasese seem to indicate yet more challenges ahead for the campaign to champion equal rights for women in our society. But as the Kasese case clearly indicates, the hindrances to girl-child education are to be considered from a broader socio-economic context.
With most parents unable to meet their basic necessities, sending their children to school with the necessary scholastic materials is even harder.
"Many parents cannot even afford a meal for their families. Such parents send their children to school without pens, books and lunch," says Masika Kulthum Moshi, the Kasese district inspector of schools and focal officer for girl-child education. Kulthum made to the disclosure to journalists and a team of officials from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) during a tour of the district recently.
This, she said, had turned many young girls into easy targets for retail shop owners and boda boda riders.
"These men lure young girls with money to buy lunch, scholastic materials and other personal items that their parents are unable to provide," says Kulthum. But often, these gifts are given in exchange for unprotected sex from the impressionable girls.
Nyangoma's story corroborates this. Coming from a poor family, she depended on her boyfriend for the much-needed scholastic materials and other important requirements that her parents could not afford to give her.
Nyangoma adds that whatever her parents could not provide her boyfriend did.
Many young girls, however, are not as lucky as Nyangoma. Usually after giving birth, they drop out of school. Often times, the already financially-challenged parents are never keen to send them back. This is partly because they do not have enough money pay for their fees, but also because many do not believe in educating girls.
"There is still a strongly held belief in our society that girls are a source of wealth to their parents, who should be given away for marriage as soon as they reach puberty," says Kulthum.
Various interventions, modest gains
Schools have been working hand in hand with the local government administration and donor agencies to address the high rate of pregnancy among school going girls and their untimely drop out from school as a result of this problem.
Through, the Girls Education Movement (GEM), a national initiative supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Forum for African Women Educationists and other partners, various sensitisation programmes were introduced to schools.
GEM clubs were introduced in schools. Through these clubs, girls reached out to fellow students through interactive activities and local radio talk shows. They carried out sensitisation programmes about the importance of staying in school. Through these clubs, girls also reached out to communities to talk to parents and young people about the importance of educating girls.
A local initiative called Kasese Girls Education Initiative was also formed to support GEM activities in the districts. Many young girls such as Maria Bwambale (not real names) have been beneficiaries of this GEM initiative. "I probably would not be here If it were not for GEM, I was deceived and made pregnant, but this programme has enabled me to return to school," she said.
Over the years however, these initiatives have greatly declined. Many GEM clubs in schools are failing to sustain their activities because they lack funds to carry out sensitisation activities.
According to the district education office, GEM clubs exist in only 15 out of 250 schools in Kasese.
George Mainja, the district education officer, says since they does not receive any funding to specifically support girl-child education, reviving these clubs is not likely.
Enid Kyakimwa, the patron of GEM club at Mutanywana Secondary School says: "We find it difficult to carry out sensitisation projects. We need to print posters, visit communities, but we cannot. There is no money."
Not a national priority?
For many years, pregnancy in schools has been one of the major factors affecting girl-child education in Uganda.
According to Ministry of Education and Sports statistics, in 2002, 8,116 girls dropped out of school because of pregnancy. Of them, 6,229 were in upper primary while 2,353 were in O'level. This was a slight improvement from 8,201 that dropped out for the same reason a year before.
Ten years down the road, this number could have risen, especially because of minimal interventions to reverse the situations. An inception report commissioned by the Forum FOR African Women Educationalists (Uganda Chapter) on re-entry of pregnant girls in primary and secondary schools in Uganda observes that very little has been done in responding to the plight of girls who get pregnant in school and that most them are not helped to return to school.
The issue of pregnancy does not seem to feature high on the agenda of the Government," says the report.
In the end, this contributes to the low rates of completion of primary education which according to a 2009 education census report stands at 36% for girls as opposed to 51% for the boys.
Ritah Kyeyune, the focal point officer on girl-child education at the education and sports ministry, however, says apart from the GEM, several initiatives have been put in place to provide a conducive environment for girls' education.
She says pregnancy amoang girls remains a big contributor to drop out rates for the girl-child in school partly because of lack of vigilance on the part of schools, local councils and the communities.
"As the people on the ground, schools, district administrations, local councils and the communities ought to use the little support offered them by the Government and development partners to sustain girl-child education initiatives," she says.