Girls’ secondary education in Uganda
Pandemic adds urgency to project focused on girls’ education in Uganda
When I traveled to Uganda last February with my colleague and director Dan Martin, it marked the first of many visits I would likely make to the East African nation. When the plane touched down after nearly 20 hours in the air, I could barely contain my excitement.
As a three-time participant of Project Overseas, coupled with a teaching career in Canada and leading projects supporting the education of underprivileged students in Mexico, landing the job of leading efforts to improve girls’ education in Uganda was the culmination of experience and a dream come true. When I walked out of the airport in Kampala and took those first breaths of warm Sub-Saharan air, the dream became reality. After months of planning and a multitude of meetings, the Simameni project was finally taking off!
Aimed at getting more girls into high school, along with creating better learning conditions, Simameni is a great source a pride for the CTF/FCE. After years without federal government funding for civil society development projects, Simameni marked a return to the country’s involvement in helping build equity beyond Canada’s borders. So, when we wrapped up two weeks of workshops with government, education, and community leaders the 5-year project was off and running. Then, less than a month later, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything came to a grinding halt.
A school year like none other
In Canada, this year’s return to school has produced many mixed emotions. From the usual excitement that September brings, to the ever-present sense of dread and anxiety felt by educators, students, and parents. Although only the beginning, so far this school year feels like we’re already behind and playing catch up.
The pandemic has exposed existing inequalities in our own education systems. Ranging from poverty, gender-based violence, and the lack of physical and virtual connectivity, the pandemic has put our most vulnerable students at greater risk. Our kids returned to school in early September and, six weeks later, we are already seeing the negative effects of the pandemic on our teachers and students. All of this is occurring in Canada, a fully developed country. Now, try to imagine what the return to school will look like in a country like Uganda, where schools are scheduled to reopen this week after being shuttered for more than six months.
As Ugandan schools prepare to unlock their doors, the Simameni project is ready to move forward. Even though conditions are likely to vastly differ from the beginning of the year, the aim of the project is the same: to improve access, retention, and educational opportunities for secondary school-aged girls in selected communities of the country’s Western and Teso regions.
Simameni, which means ‘Stand up’ in Swahili, seeks to influence values and gender norms within the Ugandan society, to show the benefits and advantages of secondary school education for girls, and to improve the conditions in schools to make them safe, welcoming, responsive, and inclusive for girls. No small feat, but critical to address even under the cloud of COVID-19.
Like the Government of Canada, the CTF/FCE believes that supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the best way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive, and more prosperous world. We believe that women and girls can be agents of change, improving not only their lives and the lives of their families, but also strengthening their communities, and countries when they are given equal opportunities.
Opportunities amidst a crisis
Simameni is a collaboration with our long-time partner, the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU). When the Ugandan government closed all schools, sending millions of students home in March, both UNATU and the CTF/FCE recognized that the project had instantly become more important.
With distance and virtual learning a challenge at best due to a lack of internet connection, Uganda is also starved for extracurricular opportunities, leaving students unable to pursue activities while schools are closed. With students and teachers unable to meet in person, the only option for many students in terms of continuity of learning are the lessons delivered via the radio.
Despite the challenges, this situation has also created opportunities for the Simameni team to be creative, to find other ways to adapt to the new normal and to reach our objectives through different strategies. Through these alternatives, we are happy to report that Simameni is moving forward despite the pandemic!
At the beginning of September, colleagues from UNATU took advantage of the country’s prudent reopening to meet with religious, community, political, and educational leaders, and to hold meetings in the two Simameni project regions, Teso and Western. Together, they are working on developing ways to achieve the project’s goals.
Accessing and staying in school is hard enough for vulnerable children, especially girls, at the best of times. Without school, a place of safety as well as education, home confinement also means that girls and young women are exposed to higher risks of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Pregnancies, which occur during the pandemic, will have a long-term effect by creating permanent barriers for girls once the crisis is over. Moreover, since March, health services have been focussed on the fight against COVID-19, and not on sexual and reproductive health, which means that adolescent girls and young women have been put at an even greater risk.
The time to act is now
The pandemic has also shown that in many societies, including Uganda, women and girls take on the majority of unpaid domestic, childcare, and healthcare tasks, which increased when schools and workplaces closed, and people were confined to home. This context has made them more exposed and vulnerable to the virus.
While it is difficult to predict the long-term impacts of the pandemic on girls’ access to education and learning opportunities, we already know that the losses will be significant and the drop-out rates higher. Even before this crisis, we were far from seeing gender equality in education. The longer COVID-19 persists, the greater the gap will become. Because COVID-19 has made girls’ eventual return to school so uncertain and so complex, the Simameni project is more important than ever.