One morning a few weeks into the lockdown and school closure in Uganda, my daughter asked me, “Mom, will life ever be the same again? Will we have a chance to grow or go back to school ever again?”
My daughter’s anxiety highlighted that, in addition to the risk of lost learning, young people also face risks to their emotional and physical safety during school closure. Sadly, evidence suggests that child abuse increases during school closures, and that girls face greater risks including sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and forced marriage. In Uganda, evidence showed that even before the Covid-19 pandemic, children were at significant risk of abuse, with one in three girls and one in six boys suffering sexual abuse during their childhood.
PEAS schools serve remote, disadvantaged communities and over half of PEAS students are girls. PEAS works hard to improve girls’ access to quality education and, with GEC support, PEAS is supporting 7,400 marginalised girls through our GEARR-ing Up for Success After School project. The project focuses on equipping school leaders and teachers with the skills they need to help girls enrols and succeed in school, including through establishing Girls’ Clubs to provide girls with safe spaces to develop their skills and build their confidence. Due to PEAS focus on supporting marginalised groups, we are aware that our students are often at particular risk. Schools, when operating with strong child protection measures, offer a safe space to all students and an alert system for child abuse. School closure and the increased risks to students means that keeping children safe is more important, and more challenging than ever.
As the Senior Child Protection Officer at PEAS Uganda, I am responsible for ensuring that PEAS schools provide that safe space, and effectively support students and families if there are child protection concerns. I am proud that PEAS has always prioritised child protection and has been accredited by Keeping Children Safe for meeting international standards of child protection. Over the last eight months, I have led the adaptation of PEAS Uganda’s child protection approach during school closure. As a working mother with children at home, I have a responsibility to ensure my children’s safety as well as all children across the PEAS secondary school network. While focusing on my own children’s safety, my mind is constantly drawn to those children across the PEAS network who I am less able to directly support.
As such, when all schools were mandated to close in Uganda on March 18, my first thought was, “How can we keep our students safe and supported during this time?”
How PEAS adapted to keep children safe
To answer that question, PEAS acted quickly. At the start of school closure, we developed safeguarding guidance to help staff at all levels understand their roles and responsibilities, and how to report any child protection concerns swiftly. This guidance was particularly important for staff involved in direct communication with students through channels that PEAS has not previously relied heavily on, such as SMS and telephone calls.
The majority of PEAS students do not have access to the internet or televisions, so we reached out to students using low-technology approaches to share education, health and safeguarding advice. We have sent out SMS messages, aired radio shows and set up a telephone tree system through which teachers call students on a weekly or fortnightly basis to check in on their wellbeing. Through all channels, we have provided advice to caregivers and students on keeping stay safe during this time, remaining alert to risks to their wellbeing, and how to report safeguarding concerns, for example by calling a PEAS head teacher, their local police or the PEAS child protection hotline.
What have we learned?
The importance of continued caregiver and community engagement. This period has made it clearer than ever that caregivers and communities play an essential role in a child’s education. Supporting caregivers to understand how to keep their child safe, the importance of girls’ education and how to instil discipline using positive behaviour management techniques is central to keeping children engaged in education and safe. As schools begin to open for candidate classes, PEAS will continue supporting caregivers and students remotely, adapting our approach to respond to their feedback and needs. Once possible, we look forward to continuing in-person community engagement activities.
Providing opportunities for students to raise their concerns and support each other is critical. Initial evidence has shown that teacher support calls, through the telephone tree system, has been particularly effective at helping students and their caregivers feel supported. PEAS is planning how best to build on this direct contact with students and caregivers, and continue it as schools reopen to strengthen our support systems. In addition, all PEAS schools have Girls’ Clubs, where girls can develop skills, have fun and discuss gender-related issues or worries. Encouraging students to develop small networks in the community will also allow them to support each other outside of the formal school structure.
Investing now to provide effective support students when schools reopen. We know that students are finding school closure hard. PEAS believes we need to invest time now in developing ways to support all students effectively and provide specialist support where needed once schools reopen for all students. PEAS has developed psychosocial support materials to make sure that all students receive guidance on how to assess their wellbeing and manage anxiety – this will become part of PEAS existing life skills programme to make sure emotional wellbeing is continually prioritised. All PEAS staff have received refresher child protection training, so they know how to take a survivor-centred approach to incidents of abuse. In addition, PEAS school child protection focal persons are ready to provide, and bring in specialised services where needed, to support vulnerable students or those who have experience abused.
We believe that PEAS’ approach to safeguarding during school closure has helped to keep some of the most disadvantaged students in Uganda safe. The Girls' Education Challenge structures have supported PEAS through this process, with the Fund Manager giving helpful clarity through the new safeguarding standards, providing structure for a safeguarding action plan, and hosting safeguarding webinars to enable the sharing of best practice. A safeguarding monitoring exercise also provided valuable guidance for the development of our safeguarding action plan.
This period has highlighted the inequality of access to technology and we are aware that even low-technology approaches cannot reach all of our students. The 2020 GEM report also highlights this challenge, and PEAS agrees that sometimes not even low-technology solutions will work. While we continue to think about how we can reach out to all PEAS students to help keep them safe while schools are closed, we are also investing time now to ensure that as schools reopen students feel able to return and we have the best possible measures in place so that all students have access to the support they need to be safe and able to prepare for their future.