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With child marriage and teen pregnancy on the rise, community solutions are key

Since March, millions of children across the world have received the same news: schools are closed to protect communities from COVID-19. For teenaged girls in rural communities facing poverty, these school closures may mean the end of studies permanently. Already a priority under the 2030 agenda, with major targets under two SDGs, closing education gaps for girls requires more attention than ever.

“We are seeing more violations of girls rights in the communities and based on statistics from Uganda police, we see an increase of early pregnancy,” ECLT’s Uganda Director, Eddie Wambewo, stated. 

The Foundation’s rapid assessment has shown that with girls out of school, there is a spike in teen pregnancy and early marriage across our project areas, an issue raising concern at international level from The New York Times and international children’s rights organisations.

In the context of fighting child labour, the ECLT Foundation has worked for years to make schools more accessible to girls and to provide training and money management skills to women. Our project outcomes continue to show the ripple effect of how investing in girls improves lives and livelihoods of entire communities. The economic and social effects of the global health crisis put progress made on education, poverty and gender equality at serious risk.

“With children out of school, abuses are happening within communities and within families. When a girl is violated, there is often an economic aspect. Often justice is not sought, but there is usually a payment arranged between families. Girls are often forced out of the family home and even into marriage. The is a very high chance these girls will never go back to school,” explained Wambewo.

Engaging Communities for Girls

What can be done to ensure that this generation of girls does not disappear from schools and get lost in early marriage? ECLT partners have responded to the COVID crisis quickly in all of our project countries, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.

To increase the protection of children beyond our project areas, the ECLT Foundation coordinated with national governments, unions, workers and other agriculture sectors, like coffee and tea, on awareness raising efforts targeting rural communities, including radio and printed materials on health, child protection, as well as specifically on forced marriage and sexual abuse.

When possible, direct support is also continued, for example using social distancing for the Village Savings and Loans Groups, which are 90% made up of women. These groups help women manage finances during the crisis and provide a platform to reach local women and girls about children’s rights abuses and how to prevent them.

In Uganda, community-based structures including the local child protection committees and VSLA groups have received training on how to handle cases of abuse and make referrals to justice system. In the Hoima district, Magistrates have participated in the trainings to build trust and understanding of what can be done in the justice system.  “We know this is having an impact because we are getting calls to report violations from areas where cases were never reported before and hearing the same thing from the National Child Helpline (116),” says Wambewo.

“Community engagement is key during this time of national emergency,” stressed Sam Kalimba, from TAMA Farmers Trust in Malawi. ECLT has supported TAMA to reach out to communities directly and through district and traditional leaders with positive results. “Chiefs are the custodians of culture,” said Kalimba, explaining how local chiefs can be key to lasting changes of attitudes and practices.

Continued support as schools re-open

As schools reopen in places like Malawi, support from our area-based projects and partnerships is crucial to ensure that supplies like soap and water are available for students and educators to come back safely. “We are focused on making schools a safe place as they reopen and will continue to monitor and support,” said Kalimba.

But, even as schools re-open, the consequences for girls and women will last. The COVID crisis remains a real threat to small-holder farmers many of whom already live in extreme poverty. It is clear that school closures have already exacerbated the gender divide in education in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Increased poverty is poised to continue this trend. To better understand the evolving realities and difficulties faced in by farmers in areas where tobacco is grown, the ECLT Foundation is prioritising research efforts alongside our on-going project efforts.

In Uganda, Mr. Wambewo is optimistic about a new rapid assessment research agreement the ECLT Uganda Office is supporting. We have teamed up with the national Government, the National Organisation of Trade Unions, and the Ugandan Federation of Employers to better understand the socio-economic impact of COVID on children, household workers and businesses in Uganda. The survey will take place over the coming weeks to “identify gaps, opportunities, issues where we can collaborate. Once we understand the situation and bring out these issues, like pregnancy and early marriage, we can better engage with unions, workers, government and private sector for more comprehensive solutions.”