After almost two years of strict school closures, Ugandan schools have just welcomed students back to the classroom. Last year, the Ugandan Minister of Education stated that “[the] government has not left schools closed to punish you, but rather, to protect you from harm.”, but over the last two years the government has been critiqued for these restrictions, which have left over 10 million young people home without any educational support. Due to severe economic pressure and insecurity—particularly for young women and girls living in resource-deprived communities—out-of-school youths have not been afforded the luxury of ‘playing the waiting game’ to resume learning. And while an estimated one-third of students in Uganda will never return to the classroom again due to the various economic and social barriers that have accumulated over the last two years, what should the two-thirds expect now that schools have reopened?
Community-driven organizations (CDOs) have shouldered the brunt of the intervention work to mitigate some of the harmful impacts on vulnerable community members during the prolonged school closures. As Girl Up Initiative Uganda prepares to reintegrate our core in-school programs into our partner schools—taking into account all of the lessons learned over these last two years— we have been working hard to make necessary, responsive shifts to ensure that we address the emerging needs of learners, who have been through so much. What has been made abundantly clear is that we can’t pretend that students and teachers are the same. These last two years have been filled with countless losses and trauma, and it has changed everyone. Through conversations with teachers, students, and parents, as well as lessons learned during COVID-19 as a whole, we have identified a few areas that we will be expanding upon in this new year of implementation.
Increasing Psychosocial Support
Throughout the pandemic, many young people have been forced to shelter in unsafe homes given the various restrictions on movement during country-wide lockdowns. We have been responding to the incredibly high number of cases of domestic violence, child neglect, incest, and sexual violence, most severely affecting women and girls in family units struggling with economic insecurity. The associated anger and frustration have been redirected onto many young girls, and their support networks have been weakened due to social isolation. And while it’s still too soon to track the long-term impact of COVID-19 trauma on the learning brain, childhood trauma has been linked to significant barriers to learning, memory, and knowledge acquisition. Acknowledging that these adolescents are changed individuals is imperative to meeting students where they are. In response, we are expanding our psychosocial and counseling resources to learners, as well as teachers, who are both equally in need of support and guidance at this critical period. We are implementing both group counseling sessions and one-on-one services to work in synergy, facilitating healing and togetherness.
Engaging Parents and Guardians
Given the increase in domestic violence, we have identified a gap in parents and guardians with the personal tool-kits to mitigate domestic challenges with understanding and patience. Parents and family members are often the perpetrators of violence, as well as the ones withholding their girls from educational opportunities. Age-based and gender-based discrimination, as well as normative beliefs, work hand-in-hand to create a situation where girls and young women are not free to express themselves, which often keeps them from reporting violence and accessing vital resources. But we know that when parents and guardians are supportive of their children, learning outcomes improve, and homes and communities are safer places for girls to learn and grow. This year we are deepening our investment in parents and guardians through sessions on positive, gender-sensitive parenting so parents understand their role in learning and educational optimism. Trained parents and guardians will be empowered to role model these parenting best practices within their communities, leading to healthier communities and young people who are encouraged and supported to learn.
Creating Supportive, Gender-Positive School Environments
“The practice of a teacher should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.” - bell hooks
Teachers are often overlooked (and notoriously under-appreciated) in their role of nurturing the minds of young people. And while the focus has been on children out of school during COVID-19, teachers have also struggled during the prolonged closures. With their livelihood gone, teachers were forced to seek alternate forms of income to support themselves and their families—this, unsurprisingly, took a toll on their mental health. While Girl Up Initiative Uganda has always actively engaged teachers in our in-school programs, we know that teachers require new skills to navigate changes, as well as appreciate that taking care of themselves is critical to providing a positive classroom environment. We are committed to providing teachers with psychosocial support and mentorship so that they are able to give pupils the education they need at this time. Equipping teachers with knowledge on gender-informed pedagogy, while simultaneously appreciating them and their well-being, benefits learners, teachers, and communities as a whole.
Learning does not happen within the silo of the classroom. All key actors must be engaged to create an ecosystem of learning. Through this multi-faceted, holistic, and intentional shift in our in-school programming, we are centering education, especially girls’ education, in Uganda’s COVID-19 recovery—if girls are not at the forefront of recovery efforts, they will be left behind.