By Aisha Karume
“When the second wave of COVID-19 came in, I was preparing to go back to school when the President issued a directive to close all schools and other places of work. At this time I don’t think I can go back to school because I have to look for money to cater for my siblings” Fifteen-year-old Mariam narrates.
As a result of the second wave of the COVID 19 pandemic, different guidelines and directives have been put up by government to curb its spread; which has drastically affected many systems with women, children’s rights and welfare being the most affected.
The pandemic has had a profound impact on Children’s rights specifically the adolescent girls, majorly their right to an adequate standard of living, right to protection from child labor and right to education among others. This health crisis has aggravated many of the main social and economic catalysts of children’s rights abuse such as limited access to education, early pregnancies, child marriages and poverty.
As economies are shutting down and stay-at-home orders are becoming the new normal, the Government of Uganda needs to come up with strategies to address the unspoken damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the rights of girls. This is because the pandemic has disrupted access to reproductive health services and information hence exposing many girls to unwanted pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Diseases during the lockdown. Most young people have had sexual encounters either consensual or non-consensual, and due to their inability to access reproductive health services, they have ended up pregnant exposing them to Sexually Transmitted Infections dangers of early marriages and other birth complications such as fistula, unsafe abortions and or death.
By 2030, it is expected that 13 million more child marriages could take place as a result of the outbreak of the pandemic. Child marriages are not only a violation of girls’ human rights and their rights as children, but are also characterized by sexual gender-based violence from their partners. The pandemic has disrupted all efforts intended to end child marriages and this calls for Government’s intervention to implement and strengthen effective child-friendly national legislative, policy and institutional frameworks addressing such challenges as per Agenda 2040.
The economic pressure has caused such a huge economic burden for a country like Uganda, most vulnerable communities/ families have resorted to forcing their girls who are pregnant into marriage due to income constraints, perceiving them as financial burdens rather than children with a future to realize and rights to uphold and protect.
Furthermore, the closure of schools/learning institutions due to COVID-19 pandemic has greatly interjected the education for many children, especially the girl child. Many of them will not be able to return to school as a result of increasing pressure to work and meet individual or family needs, let alone stigma for pregnant girls/ young mothers attending school, while others have lost contact with the education system, especially those from vulnerable communities with no option of distance/e-learning.
When President Yoweri Museveni ordered schools to close, this further contributed to an increase in child labor. The pandemic resulted into unprecedented loss of jobs and loss of income in many families introducing many children, especially young girls to the workforce characterized by hazardous and exploitative conditions for survival.
“When the second wave of COVID-19 came in, I was preparing to go back to school when the President issued a directive to close all schools and other places of work. At this time I don’t think I can go back to school because I have to look for money to cater for my siblings,” Fifteen-year-old Mariam narrates.
Although the Government of Uganda came up with a strategy to give money, most families have not received any COVID-19 relief and those who received it, it can not sustain them for long.
We therefore call upon Government to prioritize children’s rights (especially young girls) by protecting them against any challenges that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic such as sexual exploitation and abuse including inducement, coercion or being lured to into unsafe sexual activities and customary/cultural practices that are harmful to their well-being, health, education and socio-economic development.
Measures to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic should be put in place such as increasing chances for pupils to stay in school and access to health-related information on reproductive health and rights. Keeping young girls out of child/early marriages will boost the country’s/communities economic growth saving them on resources and pressure on the health sector that would otherwise be used to manage the effects of early pregnancies such as maternal and infant mortality.
Project Officer at Paradigm for Social Justice and Development.