Thursday, January 14, 2010

Uganda: Bitamazire is Admitting Failure of Her Ministry!

UGANDA'S minister of Education and Sports, Namirembe Bitamazire, announced over the weekend that she may seek to ban pregnant students from sitting examinations. The current policy expels pregnant students but allows them to sit for examinations.

Such drastic action according to the minister is needed because "If we allow this trend to continue, we may have to train teachers as midwives." She added, "This is immorality and it should be discouraged." Now, to avoid dead-end education policy aimed at scoring cheap political points, the Ministry of Education needs to carefully study the problem of teenage pregnancy, looking at current global research that speaks to what works in reducing the problem.

A good starting point for the good minister and her officials is the report for the Guttmacher Institute written by Singh et al (2006) entitled "Unintended Pregnancy and Induced Abortion in Uganda: Causes and Consequences". According to the study, an estimated 297,000 induced abortions are performed each year in Uganda, meaning a yearly abortion rate of 54 per 1,000 women aged 15-49. It is safe to assume that a significant percentage of these unsafe abortions are being carried out by stigmatised, scared school students who see getting rid of the unborn foetuses as the only way to avoid social ridicule and oppressive school policies.

Indeed, to follow the minister's logic, draconian school policies that punish would-be teenage mothers would be the perfect answer to this national tragedy. In other words, for the pregnant student, the minister's policy would give just two choices-lose the baby before it is born or forever stay away from school. Indeed the Guttmacher report makes the important observation that the Uganda school system is woefully inadequate in educating school boys and girls about healthy sexuality. For the most part, school children rely on self-education from peers who also know next to nothing about the subject. As it noted, a survey reported that 44 percent of boys and 50 percent of girls aged 15-19 had never participated in a classroom discussion of sexuality. Moreover, a good chunk of these sexually ignorant pupils had not attended an education talk on sex before experiencing their first sexual encounters.

What is clear is that Minister Bitamazire is covering up for the utter failure of her ministry to tackle the problem of teenage pregnancy in a constructive non-threatening fashion. This catastrophic failure means that thousands of perfectly literate children do not know much about their sexuality, how to respect their bodies and, most important, prevent unwanted pregnancy. She is still of the old school that believes that the best discipline is by naming and shaming the students. This old-fashion idea will surely see young pregnant teenagers go underground, seek potentially deadly ways by which to abort thereby not only killing the unborn babies but possibly put the lives of the young mothers at risk.

Now, compare this with humane school policies in America, Canada, Britain and other developed countries where teenage pregnancy has gone way down. In these countries, education authorities, well aware that stopping pregnant teens from going to school will make them dependent on the state or on relatives, support their needs for completing their education. In Canada, teenage pregnancy has steadily declined from a 1974 high of 53.9 per 1,000 population ages 15 to 19, to 32.1 in 2003.

Similar trends are evident in the United States where teen childbearing has steadily dropped over the years, from a high of 96 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in 1957 to 49 in 2000. The interesting thing here is that instead of wielding big moral stick with which to beat wayward teenagers who may risk getting pregnant, schools encourage children to become informed about sexuality.

The education curriculum in these countries deliberately confront teenage sexuality with facts not fiction, allowing young people to feel safe inside the classroom rather than in the back alleys asking questions about their changing bodies. Sexuality is openly talked about, enabling young teenagers to feel empowered in making choices out of knowledge rather than through artificial fear. Consequently, teenage pregnancy continues to drop as teenagers learn more about healthy sexuality including abstinence and using safe contraceptive methods.

What the Uganda teenage pregnancy cries out for is a need for more education not intimidation through high flying moral grandstanding. A step in the right direction is the collaboration between schools and the privately funded "Young Talk" for primary school pupils between the ages of 10 to 14 and "Straight Talk" for the older teens between 15 and 19. These two publications carry positive messages about relationships, growing up, delaying sex, using a condom, and preventing HIV/STDs and testing for HIV. But the number of children getting this vital information is quite small when one considers the large population of sexually active teenagers in Uganda.

With regard to the issue of morality, the minister should consider these questions before she goes about banning pregnant students from sitting examination. Foremost, which is immoral, the lustful men out there preying on teenage children to quench their sexual appetites, getting them pregnant and then leaving then as unwed teen mothers without a shilling to care for the babies or the vulnerable young teenage girls? Which is more immoral, the fact that these girls got pregnant through ignorance or the fact that the very school system that is charged with their safety, health, welfare and education has utterly failed them at the crucial moment in their adolescent years?

And, finally, what is more immoral than denying young mothers opportunity to complete school so that they have opportunities to care for their families? Mrs. Bitamazire, stop blaming pregnant teenage girls and start teaching them. They might actually learn something.

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