Leah Pauline, a Colorado native who has lived abroad for many years, was thrilled when she was accepted to the Health and Behavioral Sciences PhD Program at CU Denver. Now that she’s a third-year doctoral student, Pauline was about to begin her dissertation research on girls’ educational access in urban and rural areas of Uganda. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Pauline had no choice but to adjust her plans. “I was originally going to look at how adolescent girls navigate the conflicting pressure of educational ‘empowerment’ and abiding by traditional gender roles/expectations,” she said. “With the pandemic, the conflicting space and pressures have been exacerbated. It is the same research area, but the pandemic has created a more magnified struggle for adolescent girls.”
COVID-19 & Ugandan School Closures
Due to travel restrictions, Pauline was stuck in Colorado (she was able to return to Uganda in February 2021). Her research, which was meant to focus on adolescent girls at specific schools in the capital city of Kampala and the rural district of Iganga, was also stuck—because the Ugandan government closed all schools in March 2020.
“That left more than 15 million children sitting idle in their homes,” Pauline said. “Although official numbers are not known because schools are still in the process of reopening, school dropouts after the yearlong hiatus are expected to rise significantly, for girls in particular.”
The long-lasting nature of the pandemic meant that Pauline would have to include pandemic-related events into her research on adolescent girls. “With the financial strain that families have experienced due to lack of income and the closure of businesses (as a result of the pandemic), girls have become subject to child labor, early marriage by their families, and sexual exploitation leading to early pregnancies,” Pauline explained. “All these circumstances will prevent their return to school, which will ultimately impact their futures.”
Gender-Related Issues Negatively Affect Education
Although Pauline is at the beginning stage of her research, she is familiar with how girls’ education in Uganda can be negatively affected by multiple factors. “My interest in the topic has really stemmed from years of living and working in Uganda,” she said.
So far, her post-pandemic experience and initial research are pointing to a possible conclusion that the pandemic intensified gender-related problems for Ugandan schoolgirls. “Just yesterday, I met a 15-year-old high school student whose mother arranged a marriage for the young woman with a much older man,” Pauline recounted. “The family has been experiencing financial insecurity and the mother knew that they would not be able to afford school fees once school started. She thus found another solution for her daughter.”
Pauline is working with Professor Sara Yeatman, PhD, who has conducted research in southern Malawi on unintended pregnancies and access to contraception.
By Alicita Rodriguez, University Communications