This submission relates to the review of Uganda under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. It focuses on barriers to realizing the right to education for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, child labor and the impact of Covid-19 related school closures on children living in poverty, and protection of education during armed conflict.
Barriers to the Right to Primary and Secondary Education (article 11)
Students who are Pregnant or are Adolescent Mothers
Teenage pregnancy, adolescent parenthood, and child marriage are major health and social concerns in Uganda and constitute a significant barrier for girls’ education. According to national and United Nations data, 25 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 19 have begun childbearing, 34 percent of girls are married before age 18, and over 7 percent before age 15. According to UNICEF, 25 percent of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually involve adolescent girls, with more than 300,000 pregnancies ending in unsafe abortions.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, UNICEF reported a 23 percent increase in pregnancy among girls ages 10 to 24 seeking prenatal care. Many girls drop out of school permanently once they become parents, due in part to stigma in schools, the lack of support and accommodation for students who are parents, and financial barriers. School fees and other costs in public schools constitute a significant barrier for Uganda’s most economically vulnerable and poorest families, most of whom have faced financial hardship as a result of the government’s failure to provide an adequate social safety net amid Covid-19 restrictions that prevented many adults from working.
In December 2020 Uganda’s Ministry of Education published its “Revised Guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings,” providing a policy framework to clarify schools’ roles.
The revised guidelines include important policy reforms. They provide an unequivocal message that “all schools should prioritize the admission of the young mothers/girls after pregnancy and parents/caregivers shall report the school that has refused to admit their daughter to the district education officer.” This provision is crucial for education authorities to ensure that all schools recognize their obligation to re-enroll adolescent mothers and provide redress for children and parents when public schools refuse re-enrollment. The Ugandan government should widely promote this aspect of the policy, and disseminate information about girls’ education through community awareness and national campaigns.
Under the policy, once schools are notified or find out that a student is pregnant, they should ensure that the student is placed in a counselling program. Head teachers are to take measures to investigate and report allegations of sexual violence. The policy also says that stigma and discrimination against pregnant girls or young mothers is a form of psychological violence, and orders schools to counter such stigma and violence in school environments. The policy stipulates that schools “shall support adolescent mothers to link to community support structures for childcare, and economic support.” The guidelines also provide flexibility to allow students who are out on maternity leave to take end-of-year examinations should they wish to, but it remains compulsory for students to take national qualifying examinations.
Although the guidelines support girls’ right to education, they present a series of strict or burdensome “re-entry” conditions that, Human Rights Watch had previously found, could constitute an effective barrier for girls. For example, the guidelines require girls to go on mandatory maternity leave when they are at least three-months’ pregnant. They can only be unconditionally readmitted when their child is at least 6 months old. This means girls will effectively be out of school for at least a year.
The policy makes parents responsible for seeking a girl’s readmission. Parents are expected to sign an agreement with the school about the girl’s re-entry. This assumes that parents are largely supportive of girls’ continuing education, whereas some families may try to bar girls from returning to school, particularly in cases of child marriage.
Male students responsible for a student’s pregnancy will also be given mandatory leave during a girl’s pregnancy, citing that this “might act as a deterrent and lesson to other boys.” However, unlike girls, boys are not subject to mandatory paternity leave, and will be allowed to return to school after a girl has delivered. In the case of a school change, schools are expected to share information on a male student’s parenthood status with the new school, because this would be “useful in tracking him.” Data on any students’ pregnancy or parenthood status should respect their right to privacy. It should only be shared confidentially in school records as a means to support a student, to provide adequate counselling and access to services, and to accommodate their individual needs.
The guidelines state that the government’s aim to prevent teenage pregnancies through a series of measures, including problematic measures like relying on periodic pregnancy testing in schools, as well as testing all female students to avoid individual stigma against a girl who is reported or rumored to be pregnant. Human Rights Watch has found that pregnancy testing is not a preventive tool. It is stigmatizing for many girls, is often carried out without their consent, and is a serious infringement of girls’ rights to privacy, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy.
The government also aims to conduct sexuality education and teach life skills, in line with Uganda’s national Sexuality Education Framework. This framework tackles important aspects of life skills, sexuality education and prevention of HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual and gender-based violence. Human Rights Watch notes with concern that the framework does not fully comply with international human rights standards, or fully adheres to international guidance on comprehensive sexuality education. For example, Human Rights Watch found that teaching guidance overwhelmingly focuses on teaching sexual abstinence, “sexual purity,” and “virginity,” as well as curricula tied to teaching about “Deviant Sexual Behavior.” These are not in line with scientifically accurate information, emerging evidence of the benefit of “sex positive” approaches versus a “sexual risk” perspective, or good practices in talking to children and adolescents about sexual and reproductive rights.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee asks the Ugandan government:
- What steps is the government taking to tackle barriers that impede the retention of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in school, including school fees and indirect costs?
- How will the government ensure school compliance with the “Revised Guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings”?
- What special accommodations are provided for young mothers at school, such as time for breast-feeding or flexibility when babies are ill?
- What programs are in place to ensure access to nurseries or early childhood centers close to schools?
- What measures is the government taking to ensure its comprehensive sexuality education curricula complies with international standards and good practices?
- What measures is the government taking to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services for youth?
Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to make the following recommendations:
- Further revise the “Revised Guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings” to guarantee that students who are pregnant, mothers or are married are able to continue their education after giving birth, without impediment or burdensome procedures, and ensure schools are free from stigma and discrimination;
- End pregnancy testing in schools;
- Address financial, procedural, and systemic barriers that inhibit adolescent mothers from continuing their education.
Child Labor (article 15)
To stop the spread of Covid-19, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the closure of all schools on March 18, 2020, affecting more than 15 million students. Schools were partially open for university, secondary and primary candidate classes in 2021, but largely remained closed since the pandemic’s start in 2020 until January 2022. Uganda had the longest Covid-19 related school closure of any country in the world.
The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, together with school closures and inadequate government assistance, is pushing children into exploitative and dangerous child labor. Research conducted by Human Rights Watch and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights in Uganda in 2021 found that many children entered the workforce for the first time because their families could not meet their basic needs.
Many of the children interviewed said they went to work because their families did not have enough food to eat and could not meet their basic needs. When schools closed countrywide, many children also lost access to school meals. Working children also told Human Rights Watch that in addition to helping their family during the Covid-19 pandemic, they also hoped to save money to cover school fees once schools reopened. Some girls said that they needed to earn money to pay for supplies to manage menstruation.
Under Uganda’s Employment Act, the minimum age for work in Uganda is 14. The act states that children ages 12 to 14 are permitted to perform “light” work under adult supervision if it does not interfere with the child’s education. Children interviewed, ages 9 to 15, reported long hours, hazardous working conditions, denial of pay, physical and verbal abuse by employers, and sexual harassment. Without exception, the children were paid very little for their labor. Most were paid less than 7,000 shillings per day (US$2) despite their long hours. For many, pay was not predictable or reliable, but per piece and at the discretion of their employer. Some children interviewed said their employer refused to pay them at times or cheated them of their pay.
Most children interviewed wanted to return to school, but many said that school fees were a significant barrier. On paper, government schools are not supposed to charge fees, but in practice, due to financial constraints,￼ prohibitive school fees and the under-resourcing of public primary and secondary schools are significant barriers for many children. Some of the children interviewed were resigned to never returning to school, and at best, working to support the education of younger siblings.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee asks the Ugandan government:
- What steps is the government taking to prevent and reduce child labor, particularly in light of extended school closures, pandemic-related economic downturns, and financial barriers to schooling?
- What measures is Uganda taking to ensure social protection for children at risk of child labor?
- Is the government taking steps to expand cash transfer programs to include households with children?
- What efforts is the government taking to monitor child labor and enforce existing child labor laws?
Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to make the following recommendations:
- Ensure children enjoy an adequate standard of living and benefit from adequate social security, including by scaling up cash allowances, and through the progressive introduction of universal child allowances;
- Enforce child labor standards, including through vigorous monitoring, investigations, and appropriate penalties for violations;
- Pass laws requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their global supply chains to ensure they are not contributing to child labor or other rights abuses.
Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (articles 11 and 22)
The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.
The Safe Schools Declaration has been endorsed by 114 states, including 34 African countries. The African Union Peace and Security Council has urged all African countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. Uganda is yet to endorse this important declaration.
Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to make the following recommendation:
- Endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and incorporate the declaration’s standards in domestic policy, military operational frameworks, and legislation.
 See Human Rights Watch, “Africa: Rights Progress for Pregnant Students,” press release, September 29, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/29/africa-rights-progress-pregnant-students.
 Government of Uganda, “Uganda – Demographic and Health Survey 2016,” January 2016, https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR333/FR333.pdf (accessed March 8, 2022); United Nations Population Fund, “Uganda,” https://www.unfpa.org/data/UG (accessed March 8, 2022).
 UNICEF, “Uganda country profile – UNFPA/UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage,” 2019, https://www.unicef.org/media/88846/file/Child-marriage-Uganda-profile-2019.pdf (accessed March 8, 2022).
 UNICEF, “Prioritize re-opening of schools to secure children’s well being,” July 2, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/uganda/press-releases/prioritize-re-opening-schools-secure-childrens-well-being (accessed March 8, 2022).
 Human Rights Watch, “Uganda: Covid-19 Pandemic Fueling Child Labor,” May 26, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/26/uganda-covid-19-pandemic-fueling-child-labor.
 Ministry of Education and Sports, Revised Guidelines for the Prevention and Management of Teenage Pregnancy in School Settings in Uganda, 2020, https://www.ungei.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Revised-Guidelines-Prevention-Management%20-Teenage-Pregnancy-School-Settings-Uganda-2020-eng.pdf (accessed March 8, 2022).
 Human Rights Watch, Leave No Girl Behind in Africa, Discrimination in Education against Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers, June 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/06/14/leave-no-girl-behind-africa/discrimination-education-against-pregnant-girls-and.
 Human Rights Watch, Submission by Human Rights Watch to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, October 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/19/submission-human-rights-watch-un-special-rapporteur-right-privacy.
 Ministry of Education and Sports, National Sexuality Education Framework, 2018, https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/a135ac62/files/uploaded/NATIONAL%20SEXUALITY%20EDUCATION%20FRAMEWORK.pdf (accessed March 8, 2022).
 For example, Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence, December 6, 2016, UN Doc. CRC/G/GC/20; UNESCO et al, “International technical guidance on sexuality education : an evidence-informed approach,” 2018, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000260770.
 See Plan International, “‘Say it Out Loud – Sexual Wellbeing Matters,’ Perspectives from young people in Ecuador and Uganda,” March 2022, https://plan-international.org/publications/young-people-sexual-wellbeing-consent#publication-executive-summary; “Young People’s Perspectives of Sexual Wellbeing and Consent: A Literature Review,” September 2021, https://plan-international.org/publications/sexual-wellbeing-consent#download-options (both accessed March 10, 2022).
 Human Rights Watch, “I Must Work to Eat,” Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal and Uganda, May 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/05/26/i-must-work-eat/covid-19-poverty-and-child-labor-ghana-nepal-and-uganda#_ftn55.
 See ISER, “Leaving No One Behind: Barriers to Continuity of Education for Vulnerable Children Impacted by Covid-19 in Uganda,” November 2020, https://www.iser-uganda.org/images/downloads/Barriers_to_Continuity_of_Education_for_Vulnerable_Children_Impacted_by_Covid-19_in_Uganda.pdf (accessed March 8, 2022).
 Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed March 9, 2022).