I was angry today.
My poor colleague (who also happens to be extremely understanding), was forced to listen to most of my rant, after another one of my cultural discoveries.
We have just signed a contract with a private secondary school in Fort Portal, to provide medical care for all their students as needed. After writing the contract, I sent it with one of the MH staff to the school, who later came back with a question.
The school had asked if we could carry out pregnancy tests on all the girls at their school, at the beginning and end of each term.
Immediately I was suspicious. I asked why this could possibly be necessary.
The school wanted to carry out pregnancy tests on its girls (mostly between the ages of 13 and 18) so that they could find out who was pregnant and then expel them from school.
Yes. You read correctly.
So obviously, we are not going to be the group that does the tests. That is not in the contract I wrote.
Today I learnt that the subsequent expulsion for getting pregnant is quite normal. Well, normal…and… Ugandan Ministry of Education Policy. When a girl is pregnant, I was informed today that she shouldn’t attend school, and should be immediately expelled. Some schools allow them back after having the baby. Others don’t.
There are some exceptions, such as if the student is sitting their final exams. Wow. Generous.
The rate of teenage pregnancy in Uganda is high, at around 25%. A UNICEF report from Uganda found that “Many schools use expulsion (implemented in a very public manner) as a disciplinary measure to deter other girls from getting pregnant. Shaming the pregnant girl through a very public expulsion has been shown to severely compromise girls’ ability to re-join the school.”
Of course when this happens, what a girl needs is a loving home to return to, but instead… “At the community level, most respondents noted that if a pregnant girl is expelled from school, her parents will send their daughter away due to the stigma associated with teenage pregnancies. Another common practice is to marry off the teenage girl to the man or boy who impregnated her”
So let us back track for a minute. Why would she be pregnant in the first place, I hear you ask, if THAT is the consequence?
Let’s start with a few basic facts. It’s pretty much universally agreed (and is law in Uganda) that a girl under the age of 18 cannot consent and thus any sexual advances from someone older should be viewed as exploitative and coercive. Call it what you will – rape, paedophilia, defilement – there is very little choice for the child involved.
More important context: Of the many girls who have had sex at a young age, the majority had male partners that were 3 or more years older, and about 1 in 10 had male partners that were 10 or more years older. More alarmingly, a study at a secondary school in western Uganda found 31% of girls reported they had been forced to have sex. Other studies have similar findings, with sexual abuse of girls extremely common. Read more here.
Given this reality, one compassionately minded individual might ask then, why must it be the GIRLS that are PUNISHED?!
You are a poor 15 year old naïve girl.
You normally eat only twice a day. You go hungry at school.
A boda boda (motorcycle driver) gives you some extra attention. Perhaps he buys you a soda and some chappati.
After a few weeks, he propositions you to have sex. You either have no apparent choice in the matter, or you reluctantly oblige – you have been accepting his gifts, after all.
You start classes for the term. The nurse who is testing you informs you that you are pregnant. She also immediately tells the school principal.
A few days later you are told to leave the school. They announce to the school that you are leaving because you have become pregnant. You are publically shamed.
So you go home to your parents and have to explain. Your father yells at you to leave, as you are ruining his reputation in the village.
At this point, you have been raped, become pregnant, been kicked out of your school, publically shamed and then told to leave your home. You have no support or resources and will soon have a baby to look after.
All because this country allows this to happen to its young women.
Without even blinking its’ big, masculine, powerful eye.