By: Derrick Kyatuka, Communications Officer, Uganda Refugee Response
It’s an excitement that cannot be hidden—even behind masks. The mood at Obi Primary School in Uganda’s Terego District is one of anticipation. Pupils holding books, pens and mathematical sets enter their classrooms for the early morning lesson. Their teachers feel rejuvenated to hold a piece of chalk again and teach subjects of their passion. The eagerness on the pupils’ and teachers’ faces is palpable. The pupils talk and laugh like long lost friends as they wait for the teacher. It’s been a month since schools reopened for candidate classes, but each new day, pupils at this school are excited to meet and talk to their friends they had missed during the seven months of the lockdown.
“Seven months of not going to school were the longest of my life,” says 14-year-old Innocent. “I missed playing with my friends, I missed learning and teachers. Restricted movements in the community made it hard for me to meet my friends.”
A few minutes after everyone has settled down, the science teacher enters the classroom and the pupils stand up in accord and say in high-pitched voices, “You are welcome teacher.” She greets them and asks questions about the topic covered the previous day. “What is hygiene and what are the different types of hygiene?” she asks.
Innocent sits at a desk in front and shoots his arm in the air very fast to answer the question correctly. Everyone applauds. The seating arrangement and teaching procedures at the school have changed. The school now operates under strict COVID-19 guidelines. Everyone in the classroom is wearing a face mask appropriately covering both the mouth and nose and each pupil is allocated a personal desk to maintain physical distancing.
“I feel happy that I can go back to school and meet my friends, teachers and continue to learn,” he says. “A lot has changed in the way we conduct ourselves while at school like wearing face masks and social distancing but I’m hopeful that I will complete my primary level and join secondary next year. In case I don’t perform well in my final exams, I will repeat the class.”
Innocent tried to study during the lockdown, but it was hard. “I was at home helping my parents with housework, digging and fetching water,” he says. “I was among the lucky few who accessed free learning materials distributed by the government during the lockdown but the environment at home was not conducive to concentrate and read.” The bright young man and the other students are now more optimistic about achieving their dreams of joining secondary education next year if schools remain open. They are some of the lucky ones.
In Uganda, there are over 15 million learners enrolled in the education system but most are still at home as school remains open only to candidate classes. Candidate classes, the final classes of primary school and secondary school, are a critical point in a child’s schooling. If a student does not do well in a candidate class, his education is essentially over.
Empowering children to speak out
Innocent is a leader in ensuring that his fellow students practice lifesaving hygiene.
“World Vision formed a hygiene club in my school and I am the secretary of the club,” he says. “In the club, we talk about issues affecting us and we find solutions. I always tell my colleagues to always keep the environment, food and personal hygiene clean to avoid disease causing germs.” He says World Vision has empowered him to speak up and defend his rights and those of his peers. “I also share with them the tool free Uganda Child Help line where they can report any forms of violence against children in their communities. I do so to create a violence free environment for children.”
For 15-year-old Doris, the reopening of schools has saved her the burden of emotional distress that had drained her during the lockdown. “I was being overworked at home,” she says. “Every day, I was involved in digging, fetching water, cooking twice a day, making local brew and selling dry fish and cassava by the roadside. I had no time to revise school notes.”
Being in school again is a great sigh of relief for Doris. She has a peaceful mind and has refocused her life towards achieving her dream of becoming a nurse. “Most of my friends got pregnant during the lockdown and they have dropped out of school,” she says. “Some of them were married off by their parents for money while others ran away from home and got married due to circumstances like poverty and being overworked.”
A Ministry of Health report shows that 25% of Ugandan teenagers become pregnant by the age of 19, with almost half of them married before their 18th birthday and at least one in 10 girls is married before the age of 15.
Doris explains that the lockdown negatively impacted on the girls both in the refugee and host community, where she lives. Most girls were many times idle, which predisposed them to sexual activity. World Vision has been offering girl-talks to help girls live a distinguished life.
“The advice I have been receiving from World Vision staff has helped me to remain committed and focused towards completing my primary education,” she says. “Some of my friends who shunned the meetings are now married.”
Doris feels empowered by the girl-talk sessions to speak out on issues affecting girls at school and in the community. “The greatest challenge girls face is lack of sanitary pads during their menstruation. Some of them are dropping out of school due to this challenge,” she says. “Boys also stigmatise the girls by laughing at them and calling them names when they see blood stains on their uniforms.”
Just as Innocent is leading the way in hygiene, Doris is championing the fight against stigmatising girls. As a prefect at the school, she is changing the mindset of boys by talking to them about menstruation. “I want to create an environment where girls are safe and confident about their bodies,” she says. “I tell the boys that menstruation is normal and part of growth for every girl. Some boys are beginning to change their behaviour. I also know my rights and if they are not respected, I know where to report.”
Innocent and Doris are among the many children that feel empowered both in the host and refugee communities to speak out and defend their rights. Every month, World Vision holds planned children support sessions in areas of operation where children speak out their grievances and seek for solutions. Parents are also sensitised about positive parenting as this is a critical need. According to a recent study, approximately one in three girls (33.8%) and boys (36.0%) experience emotional violence by a parent, adult caretaker, or other adult relative.
Monica Atako, a senior teacher at Obi Primary School, says pupils know their rights and how to defend them. And she sees evidence that it is working.“Most of the talk happens in the hygiene club and it is later cascaded to the rest of the pupils,” says Monica. “We have registered good progress in the behaviour of our pupils. We have not registered any case of our pupils getting pregnant or married off and we appreciate World Vision for always reaching out to us and empowering children.”
There are still enormous challenges that continue to be experienced by children in communities that require strengthened commitment from different institutions and stakeholders towards upholding the rights of children, but at Obi Primary School, students like Innocent and Doris are not just overcoming the challenges; they are leading the way.