“Evelina” (not her real name), 17, looks immaculate in her pressed white-and-blue school uniform and her neatly divided cornrows, as she futilely tries to escape the sweltering heat of western Kenya beneath a shady tree. Her black leather shoes are clearly worn, but her shiny shoelaces, coated with layers of shoe polish, gleam against her white socks in the hot afternoon sun. She twists her ankle to confirm that the soles are still intact and flicks an invisible speck of dust off her skirt.
She takes this opportunity to be a student very seriously because after giving birth to her daughter, ”Hope,” she never imagined she could return to school.
In 2014, Evelina was preparing for her final examination in primary school. Having lost her mother some years back, she lived in a one-room house with her grandmother and four sisters. She was determined to excel in school so she could get a good job as a nurse or teacher and care for her family.
She had a boyfriend and sometimes had sex with him. She was not sure how to avoid getting pregnant, and when she missed her period for a few months, she suspected that she could be expecting. A local clinic confirmed this. “I was sad, ashamed,” she says softly. “I knew our circumstances back home, so I did not want to burden anyone with more problems.”
After her baby was born in 2015, Evelina, at the young age of 13, had to drop out of school.
In many African countries, pregnant students and adolescent mothers often drop out of school. Some are banned by school officials, other girls stay home to care for their babies, and many drop out when they are forced to marry. In Kenya, where Evelina lives, the government has put in place a school re-entry policy stating that schools should allow young mothers to attend and should ensure they and their parents get guidance and counselling. Head teachers can work out innovative ways to support these girls, for example by giving time off to breast feed and allowing extra classes missed for a student tending to her child.
Human Rights Watch found that in some African countries, like Tanzania, pregnant girls are often stigmatized, shamed, and forced to drop out of school. While ever-more countries have adopted policies to ensure that girls stay in school while pregnant or to help them return to school after their child’s birth, many do not. To celebrate the Day of the African Child, we call for all African countries to adopt such policies and for all children to be included.
Evelina’s grandmother was disappointed by Evelina’s pregnancy, but continued caring for her and her sisters. When Evelina felt the first pangs of labor one evening, it was her grandmother who took her to the hospital. They lived in a village far from the nearest main town, Kehancha, and could only get there by a local motorcycle taxi called a boda boda. It was a long bumpy ride on the rocky winding paths. Thankfully, she delivered Hope, a healthy baby girl, without complications.
Still, she wondered if she would have any chance to go back to school. As there was no one to care for her child, she decided to stay home. This is a reality that governments often forget when they think about how to support adolescent mothers in going back to school.
Unfortunately, her grandmother could no longer afford to care for her, the newborn, and her sisters, so they all moved in with their father and stepmother. It didn’t go well.
“He drank a lot of alcohol and was always quarrelling,” Evelina says. But as fate would have it, Evelina met an old friend of hers who lived nearby. She asked Evelina why she was not in school, and Evelina explained her situation. Her friend had just completed secondary school at an all-girls school, close to where they lived, and she asked Evelina to try going there. The principal there would welcome her, her friend said, even as an adolescent mother. Unlike many schools, this one allowed all girls to finish their education, whether they were pregnant or had children.
But Evelina had no way to raise the school fees of $120 a year, even though it was very little compared with other schools. Also, her father was drinking more than ever and she still had no one to care for her child. There was no way, Evelina thought.
Then things went from bad to worse. Her father soon kicked out his wife. One night, he tried to burn the house down to make Evelina, her daughter and her sisters leave. The neighbors rescued them, and the girls stayed with their neighbors for some time.
Evelina turned to an already-married older sister, who helped them rent a house for $5 a month. Another sister braided hair, and Evelina did odd jobs like washing clothes or dishes in the neighborhood to earn money to live. They survived this way for a while.
Evelina kept in touch with her friend, who kept encouraging her to go back to school. “I had saved up about $30 and my friend gave me these very shoes, they are her old school shoes,” Evelina said, tears flowing freely as she recalled the moment. The shoes would have been the most expensive part of her uniform, and Evelina feared the ridicule heaped on children who went to school barefoot. “She said now I had no reason to stay home. This is why I decided to come to school.” She enrolled at the same girls’ school and began her secondary school education.
She decided not to reveal the extent of her financial difficulties to the school administration. As time passed, she was sent home because of unpaid school fees. She would stay home for a few days then return and make an excuse about delayed payment. She kept this up for a while. “All I wanted was to study, they already knew I had a child. I did not want anyone’s sympathy, I just wanted a chance. But the truth is that nobody was coming to pay my fees, and I had to tell them.”
The school principal let her stay in school and began searching for well-wishers to pay her debts. Although the school has not found someone to pay for her fees, Evelina still studies with no interruption from the school.
When she comes to school, she leaves her daughter, Hope, with a neighbor, whom she sometimes has to pay. Three of her sisters come to school with her too. The neighbor cares for the little girl all day, until Evelina returns at 4:30 p.m. “I do not know if my child eats anything during the day, but I cannot think about that,” she says. “It is too painful. I never ask, I am just glad that someone is caring for her as I study.”
Evelina now has two more years of high school. She often thinks of how life will be for her daughter one day when she has a good job. For now, she is always happy to see and play with her daughter before doing her evening chores. When it is time to study, Hope clings to Evelina while she does her homework under a dim lamp in the night.