The Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Target 4.5, particularly, seeks to eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl Child, over 600 million (UNICEF,2022) adolescent girls in the world continue to face a myriad of challenges affecting their education, physical, and mental well-being. The Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic, especially, exposed the depth of challenges faced by the Girl. In a 2020 monitoring report on Ghana’s COVID-19 Back to School Campaign, ActionAid Ghana, and the Africa Education Watch, discovered that 22 percent of the 200 sampled schools had issues of girls not returning, barely one month into reopening for Senior High Schools (SHS) and three weeks for Junior High Schools. Two reasons were adduced for the absence of girls from school; 75 percent of the girls were pregnant whilst 25 percent of them were forced into child marriage, with Senior high schools in the Upper East Region recording the most cases.
In commemorating this day under the theme “Our time is now- Our Rights, our future,” I am positioning my lens on the Guidelines for Prevention of Pregnancy Among School Girls and Facilitation of Re-Entry into School After Childbirth (2018) in Ghana. This guideline was developed to “address the problem of pregnancy among schoolgirls and its consequences on the education of girls.”
A report by the Ghana Health Service, 2021 revealed that as of March 2022, 109,888 girls were pregnant due to the lockdown of schools in the country. The recorded number of pregnant girls within the period exceeded the number of persons who had contracted the virus. This phenomenon has disproportionately disrupted the education of more girls in sub–Saharan Africa. Several African Countries witnessed a spike in the number of teenage pregnancies during the peak days of the pandemic. In Kenya and Malawi, the number of pregnant girls increased by 40% and 35% respectively within three months in 2020 (Global Partnership for Education, 2021). Similarly, Senegal, Malawi, Namibia, and Tanzania recorded an increase in cases of teenage pregnancy. (Forum for African Women Educationalist, 2021) These startling statistics, question and threaten our commitment towards the achievement of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. Sad to say that despite the intense advocacy by stakeholders at all levels, teenage pregnancy remains a barrier to the retention of girls in school.
Although policy measures have been put in place to ensure the return of teenage mothers to school, the Forum for African Women Educationalist (FAWE 2021) and Global Partnership for Education (GPE,2021) have observed with concern that a considerable number of girls who get pregnant are unlikely to return to school. Poor implementation of the reentry policy in many countries has led many girls to drop out of school.
Ghana’s Re-Entry Policy
The re-entry policy in Ghana unlike that of other country’s was developed to prevent pregnancy among schoolgirls and ensuring that schoolgirls who get pregnant are given the opportunity to continue their education during pregnancy and after childbirth. The Ghana Education Service recognises the right of every child to full cycle of basic education. The service seeks to promote universal access, retention, and completion of every child in Ghana.
In Ghana, even though it is acknowledged that pregnancies occur among schoolgirls, there are no standard procedures for handling pregnant schoolgirls or dealing with young mothers who want to return to school after childbirth. The absence of a standardised system has resulted in school heads using their discretion to deal with the issue. To address this gap, the Ghana Education Service (GES) working through the Girls’ Education Unit (GEU) developed the “school reentry policy”
Despite the impressive outline of its implementation approach, the policy has been met with what in my view I consider to be the four main barriers espoused below.
Situating policy in an environment of deep socio-cultural beliefs and traditions
The nature of our society and views on what, where or who women and girls can be, should be or should not be, is a huge contributing factor to the development of the full potential of women and girls in Ghana. In this context, the girl's unfriendly school systems and stigmatisation associated with teenage pregnancy, makes it difficult and almost impossible for pregnant girls to re-enter or re-enroll to continue their education after childbirth.
Through our engagement at the various communities, we made a shocking discovery that community members and parents perceive the reentry policy as a channel for the promotion of promiscuity amongst students. They are of the view that the guidelines to go against societal norms as well as encourage girls to engage in premarital sexual activity, an act frowned upon by many Ghanaian cultural and traditional beliefs which are used to punish girls who get pregnant while in school. Alarmingly, schoolteachers and education staff who are responsible for the implementation of the policy also share in this belief. Consequently, they frustrate the process of reentry for teen mothers as the policy has failed to address the misconception and stigma associated with pregnant schoolgirls.
Limited sensitisation on the prevention aspect of the policy
Interestingly, the reentry policy has two dimensions, the first focuses on the reintegration of teenage mothers into schools, while the other dimension looks at the prevention of pregnancy among teenagers. However, sensitisation and dissemination of information on the policy have dwelled on reentry. There has been limited awareness creation on prevention. This has resulted in the lack of ownership of the policy. It is therefore crucial for policy implementors to highlight the overall objective of the policy and what it seeks to do. I believe if this is properly done, community members will not see the policy as a driving force for teenage pregnancy.
School environment not conducive for pregnant girls
To whip up the interest of teenage mothers to stay in school, it requires the provision of structures such as day care centers which provide assurance that the safety and security of the babies are catered for. Unfortunately, since the rollout of the guidelines, infrastructure of this nature has been inadequate or nonexistent. These key factors have reflected poorly on the implementation and monitoring process and questioned the effectiveness of the policy. The guideline fails to deal with the physical, social, and economic impact of pregnancy and childbirth on young mothers' living conditions and the intersecting factors that shape their re-entry to school. It, therefore, lacks an intersectional approach to ensuring that the guidelines are rolled out in an environment suitable for their implementation.
Implementation of policy left at the mercy of Headteachers
In June 2022, I facilitated a sensitisation forum on the reentry policy for 64 teachers and head teachers in the Greater Accra region. Through our pre- and post-evaluation sessions, it was observed that over 90% of teachers indicated that they have never sighted the policy document. The Head teachers on the other hand explained that they are aware of the policy, however, they lack information on the content of the policy. This shocking revelation also raises concerns on the level of awareness created around the policy and its implementation approach. The responsibility of the policy implementation at the school level has been placed at the doorstep of the school heads. If the lead policy implementors are unaware or do not consider the policy to be “moral,” what then would come of the implementation? Your guess is as good as mine.
School reentry policy is crucial to the retention of girls in schools and the rights of every child to a full cycle of education. However, the policy is faced with numerous challenges that serve as a barrier to its successful implementation. Policymakers and all relevant stakeholders must come together to ensure that the policy fully achieves its set results. Awareness creation of the policy must be intensified, strong processes of implementation with clear roles and responsibilities must be spelled out, school environments must be equipped to be suitable for teenage parents and efforts must be made at promoting ownership of the policy and its reconciliation with culture. Without this, the guidelines remain an articulation of goals and means and not a tool to promote girl child education.