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`I must work to eat’

Children reveal why they are not returning to school

| THE INDEPENDENT | To limit the spread of Covid-19, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the closure of all schools on March 18, 2020. The closures affected an estimated 73,200 schools, more than 15 million students, and 548,000 teachers.

In October 2020, candidate students in primary and secondary school were allowed to return to prepare for final examinations. Schools opened to other students in March 2021.

But according to a new report released on May 26, although schools have reopened, many children interviewed have not yet returned.

To encourage students to return to school, the Ministry of Education prepared a back-to school campaign with partners, `Kalaamu Teliimba’ (“Education Does not Lie”), using posters, fliers, social media, television, and radio. But for some it was too late.

By January 2021, more than nine months since the beginning of the pandemic, an estimated 13.8 million students were still out of school.

The report entitled `I Must Work to Eat’ Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda, says the children are not returning to school either because they believe their families still needed their income from jobs they did during lockdown, or because they needed to earn money for school expenses.

Some were resigned to never returning to school, or at best, supporting the education of their younger siblings.

Under Uganda’s Employment Act, the minimum age for work in Uganda is 14. The Act states that children ages 12 to 14 are permitted to perform “light” work under adult supervision if it does not interfere with the child’s education.

The report was compiled by Human Rights Watch, Friends of the Nation, and Initiative for Social and Economic Rights.

Research in Uganda was done by Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, with Angella Nabwowe Kasule as project supervisor and reviewed by Oryem Nyeko, Uganda and Tanzania researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The researchers interviewed children 32 children in Uganda between the ages of 8 and 17 as part of a project that also covered Ghana and Nepal.

The children were mainly from low-income households. Some children interviewed were already working before the pandemic began, but many entered the workforce for the first time to support their families.

Nearly all of the children interviewed said their parents lost jobs when businesses shut down, lost access to markets due to transportation restrictions, or lost customers due to economic slowdowns.

Moses’ mother lost her income when the hair salon where she worked shut down. Maria’s father’s wages as a night watchman were cut. Angela’s mother lost her job as a nursery schoolteacher when schools shut down due to the pandemic. Fifteen-year old Evelyn’s father was a fisherman and lost his income when pandemic restrictions prohibited boat traffic. Isaac, age 15, said his mother was a food trader, but during the lockdown, she could not get to the market due to lack of transport. Robert, age 15, said his father worked at a stone quarry, but after the pandemic began, few customers came to buy stones.

Many of the children described lack of food and hunger.

Thirteen-year-old Florence said that before she went to work, her family survived on tea and porridge. “I started working because we were so badly off. The hunger at home was too much for us to sit and wait.”

Angelina, age 14, said that during the lockdown, “There was no money to buy food, sugar, salt, and water. There were days when we could not get food. We survived on drinking water.”

Eric, age 14, worked with his mother at a limestone quarry, but said that when the pandemic began, there were no customers to buy the stone. Instead of paying cash for their work, he said that their employer paid them with alcohol.

“Sometimes we would borrow food from our relatives,” he said. “There were days when we slept on an empty stomach because we could not find anything to eat.”

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