When the Ugandan government decided to impose the first total lockdown in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID 19, there was a lot of uncertainty. The country was locked for a period of five weeks, yet schools did not open until later that year in October.
No sooner had the closure of schools been lifted than the government decided to close yet again, on the grounds that the rate at which the virus was spreading had become alarming. The on and off closure of schools greatly affected the education system, the students being the main victims.
Peter Byalero, a teacher at Buseruka Primary School says that so many of the pupils eventually dropped out. “Most of these children were grinding in extremely tough conditions. They were working in sesame gardens and rearing cattle since they did not have studies to engage them. On top of that, they did not have the scholastic material that they needed in school.”
Bruhani Mubangizi, a teacher at Katugo Primary school also says they too faced the same challenge. “Since the children were not attending school, their parents used this opportunity to employ them in sugarcane plantations, tobacco shambas and doing intensive house chores like splitting firewood. This was not right.”
With the intervention of UWESO came a massive turn of events that saw the children become the major benefactors of this project. “Meetings were arranged by the organisation to interact with parents and members of the community to advise them on the importance of education. They were also informed on how hazardous intensive work can be to children” Peter says.
“Even before COVID many parents were using their children as free labour instead of enrolling them in schools where they could write a better future for themselves.”
Since the arrival of UWESO in 2019, there has been an increase in the number of children at the school. “Before 2019, we had just 30 pupils in primary one. But as I speak now, we have got over 400.”
At primary school, the story is the same. Ntayiraho Simon, the headteacher at Katanga Primary School says that before UWESO’ intervention, the school had just 75 students from P5 to P7. Now, there are 168 pupils. In total they are over 250.
“UWESO came and provided our pupils with scholastic material like textbooks, pens, pencils and exercise books. They also put up a classroom block, a ventilated improved pit latrine and a 5000-litre tank. We as a school got a boost in both academics and infrastructure.”
Krest Mulungi, a 15-year-old in primary five at Katuugo primary school was one of the beneficiaries of the scholastic material that was provided by UWESO. “I used to fail to go to school because I did not have any notebooks to write in or any pencils to use. Whenever I talked to my parents about it, they often told me that the money they had was meant to be spent on more pressing needs. So whenever I could, I started working in people’s gardens so that I could earn some money. It is from that little income that I used to buy my own books.
However, ever since he received the boost from UWESO, Krest has had more time dedicated to his education rather than spending time outside the classroom looking for small jobs to facilitate his education.
Debbo Stella, an 11-year-old in primary six also received sanitary pads on top of the scholastic material. As a young girl entering into puberty, pads are very essential for her hygiene. But what Stella is most thankful for is her parent’s increased concern in her welfare while at school.
“Previously, the school would organise meetings and invite parents to inform them on how the students were progressing and discuss whatever issues were affecting us. Most parents, mine included, never bothered to show up, claiming that it was a waste of time. But from that time in 2019 when UWESO sensitised them on the importance of our education, their mindset changed. My parents are now more involved in my studies and it feels good to know that they care.”
Night Harriet, the headteacher at Buseruka Primary School claimed that although the efforts by UWESO to curb child labour have proved to be effective, the problem is still very much present. “Child labour is still ongoing in our community. The difference is that now, children and parents are aware that it is wrong and it needs to be eliminated.”
The SCREAM methodology - Supporting Children's Rights through Education, the Arts and the Media
One of the ways that UWESO implemented its activities was through the SCREAM methodology (Supporting Children's Rights through Education, the Arts and the Media) that was brought in to keep the students engaged in school.
“The children that attend school here come from poor families that most do not really care whether they come to school or not”, she adds. “So SCREAM has been really helpful in engaging the students. UWESO gave us balls, drums and other musical instruments, tools that we employ to implement the methodology. These students love singing. Our MDD club is very active and the children really enjoy expressing themselves in this art form. As long as we keep practising this way, our number of students is bound to go up.”
While the headteacher is very appreciative of UWESO’s efforts to kick out child labour in their community, Harriet still feels a lot more can be done. “Just a couple of years ago, it was almost impossible to find children in the classroom on our market days on Tuesdays. But now, our students attend religiously and for that we are very grateful. However, I do request that scholastic material be provided to not just a few students but all so that it encourages the rest. With the increasing number of students, we also need a main hall so that we can reduce congestion in the classrooms.”