Gulu University Starts Research on Impact of Covid-19 on Youth Reproductive Health

Gulu University Starts Research on Impact of Covid-19 on Youth Reproductive Health

The years 2020 and 2021 were very difficult for the youth in Uganda. 

Many of them were supposed to be at school but they stayed at home. All academic institutions were closed in March 2020 as a measure to control the spread of Covid-19 and were only fully re-opened in January 2022.

During that period, many girls got pregnant, produced children, and some were prematurely given away in marriage. These things were happening before, but staying out of school provided a fertile ground to worsen the situation in a country where, prior to the pandemic, one in every four girls got pregnant before the age of 19.

That is only part of the story. The lockdown exposed young people to different risks and abuses including defilement, rape, sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence. On the other hand, access to health services as well as psychosocial support was made difficult by restricted movement of people.

In northern Uganda, a team of seven women comprising five Ugandans and two Danes has set out to establish the extent to which Covid-19 and the lockdowns affected reproductive health among the youth in that region. This is a 2-year BSU-led research, in partnership with the Imagining Gender Futures in Uganda (IMAGENU) project, with funding from Danida and the topic is Consequences of the COVID Epidemic for Youth Reproductive Health in Northern Uganda (CONSCOV).

Dr. Agatha Alidri (Gulu University), Emily Uramba Kayeny (Gulu Regional Referral Hospital), Filda Anicia (Reproductive Health Uganda), Ass. Prof. Hanne Overgaard Mogensen (University of Copenhagen), Judith Awacorach (Gulu University), Julaina Obika (Gulu University) and Prof. Susan Reynolds Whyte (University of Copenhagen) will seek and analyse information on teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), post abortion care and access to family planning services.

The research team poses for a group photo after its meeting on April 1, 2022. L-R: J. Obika, J. Awacorach, S. Whyte, F. Anicia, E. Kakeny and A. Alidri

The research will be conducted in Gulu City, Gulu District and Adjumani District. It will involve primary and secondary schools, higher institutions of learning, health centres, the police and different communities affected by the pandemic and the lockdowns.

The research team on April 1, 2022, held a planning meeting at the Reproductive Health Uganda centre in Gulu during which they discussed how they would approach their research, which specific issues they targeted, and whom they would work with to achieve their objectives.

“There is reported increase in pregnancies, meaning that people were not using condoms, so the possibility of increase in sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) is also there. It looks to me the response [to the pandemic] was a very big problem, more than the disease,” said Prof. Whyte, a Co-Principal Investigator (PI) of the project alongside Dr. Alidri, the BSU Coordinator.

Anicia, the manager of the centre, said that the worst period was in 2020, during the first lockdown.

“People were totally locked. We had very many unintended pregnancies, not only for the teenagers but also among the married. This led to a higher rate of abortion and mortality through abortion. Infections were occurring but people could not access our [reproductive health] services. Women could not access the centre” said Anicia, adding that gender-based violence (GBV) too was high, not only from the male but also from the female.

“When the men were locked they became idle. They demanded sex all the time. Look at a situation when a woman would be tired. This would result in GBV,” she said.

Alongside the research, the team will offer training in youth friendly services, post abortion care and management, and how to offer family planning services. Researchers from the academia will also train the staff of Reproductive Health Uganda (northern region) and Gulu Hospital’s adolescent clinic in research knowledge generation and knowledge sharing.

The researchers share a light moment after the meeting. L-R: J. Awacorach, A. Alidri, J. Obika (with glasses facing camera), E. Kayeny, F. Anicia and S. Whyte

After the Gulu meeting, Prof. Whyte visited the Adjumani District Reproductive Health Uganda unit where she interviewed Aisha Nakyazze, a service provider, on the reproductive health situation in the district. This is a district half of whose population comprises refugees mostly from South Sudan and, according to Dr. Alidri, Adjumani was specifically targeted because of the refugee aspect.


Nakyezze (l) with Prof. Susan Whyte during an interview in Adjumani town

Nakyazze said there was need for sensitization of the people in Adjumani on reproductive health.

“They generally don’t understand their reproductive health rights,” she said, adding that her unit had “a surge” of clients in January when children were returning to school. Most of them were seeking post abortion care.

Background to this research

While on another research project, about transforming education in northern Uganda, Dr. Alidri and some of her colleagues at the university visited some schools in 2019 and in March 2020, just before they were closed.

“When we went back in March things were normal. The learners were active. The teachers were there. But when the lockdown was eased later in 2020 we discovered that a number of girls had conceived. We called education officers and they confirmed that many girls had been defiled. Some girls had been married off,” said Dr. Alidri during an interview. “The picture we got was that the pandemic, and especially the lockdown, had had a negative impact on the learners. Some were pregnant at the age of 10 or 12.”

Dr. Alidri added: “Even at the universities after the lockdown a number of girls returned pregnant. And these are girls who are 18 and above. This gave the impression that they could not access reproductive health services during the lockdown.”

When Danida allocated funds for Covid-19 related action research, the team applied and got the funding, which is a little over USD 330,000.  

“Much is being talked but there is no compilation in form of a research output. We want to give research evidence of the impact of Covid-19. We also want to skill health workers so that their services are research oriented. This will enable them see the trends of certain phenomena among the youth and then suggest an intervention or interventions before a situation can turn into a crisis,” Dr. Alidri said about the purpose of the research.

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Building Stronger Universities (BSU)-Gulu is a multifaceted programme aimed at strengthening research capacity at Gulu University in northern Uganda

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