Such a lengthy closure might seem extreme, but so were the circumstances. By March 2021 – a full year into the worst global health crisis in living memory – less than 2 per cent of all Covid-19 vaccine doses administered globally had been in Africa.
Limited vaccine supplies had been hoarded by wealthier countries, which had locked into bilateral agreements with the major pharmaceutical companies. African governments were forced into a delicate balancing act between safeguarding their economies or saving lives. We opted for “life and health ahead of wealth” – as we say in one of our local languages.
With lockdowns as the only public health tool at our disposal, we swiftly implemented and maintained some of the strictest restrictions in Africa, maintaining a death rate of well below the global average while targeting 20 per cent of Ugandans vaccinated – representing a majority of the adult population – by the new year. With this goal reached, we are now reopening our economy – and with it our schools.
However, while countless lives were saved, nearly two years without school has taken its toll in other ways. Many young girls have had to take jobs to support their families, already struggling with the economic impact of Covid. In some villages, sexual assault against teenage girls with no school to go to has skyrocketed, as has teenage pregnancy. UNICEF’s representative in Uganda puts the number during the pandemic at around 300,000. Many are being pushed into marriage by their families. Getting these young women to return to school must be a national priority.
Across Africa, women are all too often left behind when it comes to education. I am proud that, in this respect, Uganda often stands apart. Our affirmative action policies introduced in the 1990s saw female enrolment at Uganda’s largest university, Makerere, more than double from just 23 per cent in 1989 to producing more female graduates than male for the second year in a row in 2021. In fact, the 51 universities across the country are now educating more women than men.
Other critical policies ensure our women can continue from their education into leadership roles. It is government policy, for example, that every single one of Uganda’s 146 districts is represented by at least one female MP. The results of this are plain to see.
Women in Uganda today feature prominently in government in a way simply not seen across much of the rest of Africa – even putting many developed western countries to shame. Thirty five per cent of our cabinet are women, including our prime minister, first deputy prime minister and our vice president.
In fact, we were the first African nation to appoint a female vice president in 1995. The trails these women have blazed are inspiring the younger generations too. When Proscovia Alengot Oromait was elected to parliament in 2012 at just 19 years old and still a university student, she was the youngest politician elected not just in Uganda, but in all of Africa and the developed world.
Today, just as we sought to encourage women into university, the boardroom and parliament in the 1990s, we find ourselves again advocating to bring our girls into the classroom. It is important to approach this challenge from the right policy perspective.
Archaic guidelines which saw pregnant girls expelled from school have been revised and now pregnant women are actively encouraged to return to school and are granted a year of maternity leave to ease the process. New guidelines require school administrators to keep in touch with pregnant girls to monitor their wellbeing and provide the necessary emotional, moral and spiritual support.
But more is needed. That schools have reopened isn’t enough – they must be reopened safely. Early identification, reporting and management of emerging Covid-19 cases will be key, as will support for the mental health of teachers and children, including the necessary psychosocial training to readjust to school life following the two-year lockdown. To support our efforts in this regard, we have gratefully accepted a combined $2.6m (£1.9m) from the governments of the UK and Ireland.
Now we call on local educators, parents and community leaders to join the fight to encourage our girls to return to school – especially those who are pregnant. While marriage might seem like a quick financial fix, it is far outweighed by the longer-term benefits of education. In the few short decades before the pandemic struck, we had already achieved so much for our women and girls. We will not abandon them now.
Janet Kataaha Museveni is the first lady of Uganda, the Ugandan minister of education and a vocal campaigner for the empowerment of women and youth in Africa.