For the world’s most vulnerable children, the closure of schools due to COVID-19 is more than a temporary evil – it could mean the end of their education. Teachers in the Education for Life programme have been trying to maintain contact with students during the crisis.
Seventeen-year-old Okello’s life has not been easy. She fled the war in South Sudan and now lives in the Palabek refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. For a while she did not go to school. But luckily, she was able to join the Education for Life programme, which helps young people like her get back into the school system through an accelerated learning programme.
Suddenly, Okello saw a chance for a better future. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came rumbling along. "COVID-19 has forced me to drop out of school again. I’m pregnant now. And I’m really sad," Okello says.
Unfortunately, her story is far from unique. In her district, the number of teenage pregnancies has risen by 40 percent during the corona lockdown. It will affect the girls for a long time, says Johnson Okwera, programme manager for AVSI in Palabek, which is implementing the Education for Life programme in 24 schools in the district.
"I really worry for all of our learners – but especially the girls. Thirteen girls from the Education for Life programme have become pregnant during the corona crisis," Johnson explains.
"Most of them are survivors of abuse, some have just been unlucky – or they have not had access to sexual reproductive health information, because people fear to go to health facilities due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has gripped focus from other health care services – there is no room for family planning services, means of livelihoods or parenting at the moment. But one thing is certain: these girls did not choose to become pregnant at such a young age."
I really worry for all of our learners – but especially the girls. Thirteen girls from the Education for Life programme have become pregnant during the corona crisis
Johnson Okwera, programme manager for AVSI
School are a safe space
For children in vulnerable contexts, school is much more than a place where they can learn how to read and write. Schools provide security and protection against violence and abuse, and their seven month’s closure is hitting this part of the world hard.
For the over-age learners in the Education for Life program, the loss of more than half a year of schooling hits especially hard. As they are already older than typical schoolchildren, they cannot necessarily postpone schooling until later. Furthermore, a large proportion of these learners fled the war in South Sudan alone, without their parents, so there is no one to take care of them when they stay at home during the crisis.
‘My learners are deeply demoralized. Many of them are losing hope,’ says Jennifer Cynthia Akongo, a teacher in the Education for Life programme.
With the already biting poverty in the refugee settlement, the pandemic has only made the situation worse. Food resources are scarce, and many families have no income at all.
‘Some of the learners have even returned to South Sudan, now that the school is closed and they have nothing to do here. Recently we heard that one of the boys has been killed. It’s unbelievably sad.’
Jennifer and the other teachers in the programme have been fighting hardworking tirelessly to keep the learners’ education going on. Every day, they walk around the settlement knocking on the learners’ doors to offer home schooling and support.
"In the beginning, we distributed home-study materials to all the students," Jennifer says.
"Then we started gathering them outside in small groups of four or five students, to support them in their self-study once a week as they work in the garden and do home chores – we are doing our best amidst their schedules."
Through the Education for Life programme, teachers are trained to pay extra attention to the most vulnerable children – who, for various reasons, are at extra risk of dropping out of school. They guide the learners and listen to their problems. According to 17-year-old Okello, it makes a world of difference.
"I feel sad because of the pregnancy," she says. "I am not free to move among my classmates. I fear being laughed at by my fellow students if I return to school. But my teachers have visited me several times during the last few weeks, and they have helped me a lot. They have been telling me that this is not the end of my life. After a safe delivery, I can go back to school.
"I really want to continue with my education. It will help me forget about the challenges in my past and continue with a normal life. My dream is to become a teacher one day, so I can tell future generations to stay in school and finish their education. It is so important.’"
'BRICE: Education for Life' is an EU funded project implemented by OXFAM in Uganda and South Sudan.
The project is part of 'Building Resilience: Education Opportunities in Fragile and Crisis Affected Environments (BRiCE) Programme' to help 75 million children living in crisis-affected countries and who are in need educational support.
In cooperation with NGOs, BRiCE programme provides quality education and safe learning environments to almost 200,000 displaced children in DRC, Ethiopia, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
Okello is not the real name of the girl in this article. Her identity has been concealed in order to protect her.
Original text by Rikke Hovn Poulsen for Oxfam