This week, Ugandan schools reopened for the first time since March 2020 – the longest Covid-related school closure of any country in the world. While Ugandans breathe a sigh of relief at being able to return to some sense of normality, challenges remain. Principal among these is ensuring that our young people – and especially our young women – will return to their education, after nearly two years without it.
Such a lengthy closure might seem extreme, but so were the circumstances. By March 2021 – a full year into the worst global health crisis in living memory – less than 2 per cent of all Covid-19 vaccine doses administered globally had been given in Africa.
Limited vaccine supplies had been hoarded by wealthier countries, which were locked into bilateral agreements with the major pharmaceutical companies. African governments were forced into a delicate balancing act between safeguarding their economies and saving lives. We opted for “life and health ahead of wealth” – as we say in one of our local languages.
With lockdowns being the only public health tool at our disposal, we swiftly implemented some of the strictest restrictions in Africa, maintaining a death rate of well below the global average while aiming to vaccinate 20 per cent of Ugandans – representing a majority of the adult population – by the new year. With this goal reached, we are now reopening our economy – and with it our schools.
However, while countless lives were saved, nearly two years without school has taken its toll in other ways. Many young girls have had to take jobs to support their families, as people struggled with the economic impact of Covid. In some villages, sexual assault against teenage girls with no school to go to has rocketed, as has the rate of teenage pregnancies. Unicef’s representative in Uganda puts the number during the pandemic at around 300,000. Many of those who become pregnant are being pushed into marriage by their families. Getting these young women to return to school must be a national priority.
Across Africa, women are all too often left behind when it comes to education. I am proud that, in this respect, Uganda often stands apart. Our affirmative action policies, introduced in the 1990s, saw female enrolment at Uganda’s largest university, Makerere, more than double from just 23 per cent in 1989 to producing more female graduates than male for the second year in a row in 2021. In fact, the 51 universities across the country are now educating more women than men.
Other critical policies ensure that our women can continue from their education into leadership roles. It is government policy, for example, that every single one of Uganda’s 146 districts is represented by at least one female MP. The results of this are plain to see.
Women in Uganda today feature prominently in government in a way simply not seen across much of Africa – even putting many developed western countries to shame. Thirty-five per cent of our cabinet are women, including our prime minister, first deputy prime minister and vice-president.
In fact, we were the first African nation to appoint a female vice-president in 1995. The trails these women have blazed are inspiring the younger generations, too. When Proscovia Alengot Oromait was elected to parliament in 2012 at just 19 years old – when she was still a university student – she was the youngest politician elected not just in Uganda, but in all of Africa and the developed world.
Today, just as we sought to encourage women into university, the boardroom and parliament in the 1990s, we find ourselves again fighting for our girls to be brought into the classroom. It is important to approach this challenge from the right policy perspective.
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Archaic guidelines that saw young pregnant women expelled from school have been revised: now they are actively encouraged to return to school, and are granted a year of maternity leave to ease the process. New guidelines require school administrators to keep in touch with those who become pregnant, to monitor their wellbeing and provide the necessary emotional, moral and spiritual support.
But more is needed. That schools have reopened isn’t enough – they must be reopened safely. Early identification, reporting and management of emerging Covid-19 cases will be key, as will support for the mental health of teachers and children, including the psychosocial training necessary to help them readjust to school life following the two-year lockdown. To support our efforts in this regard, we have gratefully accepted £1.9m from the governments of the UK and Ireland.
Now we call on local educators, parents and community leaders to join the fight to encourage our girls to return to school – especially those who are pregnant. While marriage might seem like a quick financial fix, it is far outweighed by the longer-term benefits of education. In the few short decades before the pandemic struck, we had already achieved so much for our women and girls. We will not abandon them now.
Janet Kataaha Museveni is the first lady of Uganda, the Ugandan minister of education, and a vocal campaigner for the empowerment of women and youth in Africa