By Angela Nabwowe Kasule, ISER, Uganda
There are glaring barriers to continuity of education for vulnerable children impacted by COVID-19 in Uganda. The Uganda National Planning Authority in a report about the safe opening of the education sector projected that over 30% of learners may never return to school due to teenage pregnancies, early marriages, and child labour. In as much as these issues are documented, and authorities at both national and local government levels are aware of them, there is no evidence that concrete steps are being taken to address them.
High cost of education
When schools opened in January 2022, after almost two years of closure, media was awash with stories of exorbitant school charges and how parents were struggling to find money to take their children back to school. In Uganda, it is now normal that families have to borrow to pay for basic education. This worsened following the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic.
The 2021/22 Global Education Monitoring Report showed that 30% of families in Uganda have to borrow to afford their children’s education. Uganda’s National Planning Authority in a 2020 policy brief found that public education spending has barely kept pace with the growth in the school-age population hence the increased burden on households. The household share in total education expenditure increased from 53% a decade ago to 69%. Spending on education by the poorest 20% of households grew by 11% over the last 15 years.
While many families moved their children from private to public schools as a cost-saving measure, some are unable to afford non-tuition fees even in those schools. It is also true and very painful that government-aided schools that receive state funds charge the same fees as private for-profit schools, ranging from 1 to 3 million Ugandan shillings ($286–$858), while the median monthly earnings for an employed person are 200,000 Ugandan shillings ($57). The Uganda National Household Survey 2019/2020 report found that the main reason for six in every ten persons who had left school was the costs associated with education.
Child labour and return to school
The lockdowns imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus negatively impacted livelihoods and jobs. ‘I Must Work to Eat’, Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal and Uganda, a joint research report published by Human Rights Watch, ISER and Friends of the Nation Ghana, documents how mass school closures and unprecedented loss of jobs and income forced many children to enter the workforce to help families survive. The engagement in economic activity increased the opportunity cost of returning to school of boys in particular. In the island communities of Namayingo District in Eastern Uganda, only 359 of the 777 learners returned to Butanira Primary School when schools reopened. At Nkokonjeru UMEA Primary School located in Buikwe District on the shores of Lake Victoria, only 219 of the 410 learners returned. In both districts, school administrators told ISER’s community advocates that children are engaged in fishing activities on Lake Victoria.
Influx of learners from private to public schools
Despite the inadequacies with the public system, which as the 2021/2 GEM Report showed can also be found in other countries, there has been an influx of learners from private to public schools mainly due to high cost and closure of private schools. This influx has put a stress on the already inadequate infrastructure; there is overcrowding and social distancing is not possible. At Kifuyo Secondary School in Namayingo District located in Eastern Uganda, the enrollment went up from 680 learners to 1,100.
Some private schools, in particular low-cost private schools, did not open in January 2022 because they were sold off and turned into merchandise shops while others were converted into rental houses. The National Planning Authority estimated that 3,507 primary schools and 832 secondary schools were likely to close due to financial distress. A case in point is the Bridge Schools in Uganda, commonly known as Bridge International Academies, that closed shop. A Bridge School in Kinoni, Lwego District in Central Uganda, was turned into a chicken house but was later demolished because it was on rented land.
The case of pregnant girls
Many girls got pregnant while others were forced into early marriage as a result of the prolonged school closure. A UNFPA report on addressing teenage pregnancy during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that a total of 354,736 teenage pregnancies were registered in 2020, and 196,499 in the first six months of 2021. When schools reopened in January 2022, many pregnant girls reported back to school encouraged by the directive from government that schools accept them back. At Wiggins Secondary School in Kumi District in Eastern Uganda, there are 5 pregnant girls and 5 are breastfeeding. Most schools that have registered pregnant girls or young mothers are in rural areas. However, some girls are still facing stigma and discrimination partly due to pronouncements by an Anglican Bishop stopping Church of Uganda founded schools from accepting back pregnant girls.
Attempts at seeking remedy
On 11 January 2022, a case was filed in the High Court of Uganda against the state for breach of its duty to protect, respect and fulfil the right to education for all. In this civil suit, the applicants, ISER, together with Andrew Karamagi and Micheal Aboneka, want the court to issue an order compelling the Minister of Education and Sports to immediately exercise its statutory obligation under the Education Act 2008 to regulate tuition and non-tuition charges payable at any school or education institution in Uganda. The applicants also want the court to ban the mandatory solicitation of school requirements (and any other non-cash contributions) by any school or education institution.
To address gender and equity issues that are impeding access to education for girls, the case seeks the court’s pronouncement on the rights of pregnant girls and nursing mothers to education and the need to create a framework to provide facilities for them in all schools and education institutions in Uganda. The hearing of this court case is scheduled for 24 February 2022.
It is a given that government must increase investment in public education to reduce the burden for households. The influx of children from private to public schools points to issues of sustainability, which makes a compelling case to strengthen public education because it absorbs the poor and disadvantaged children who make up the majority. In Uganda, however, there is hope. A new Education Policy Review Commission has just been established to look into what needs to be done differently to make the education system a catalyst of socio-economic transformation.
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