Mim is her mother’s darling. Every single step of her childhood, whatever she’s gone through; whatever she’s faced, her mother has been there for her. When she reported to school and, after the P1 teacher (she never went to kindergarten; her parents don’t have that sort of money) asked them to remove their dresses so they could go for PE, her peers laughed at her, it’s to her mother she reported the shame she had felt. See, among all the little girls in her class, she was the only one whose panty had been hand sewn (by her mother, from a piece of material that had remained over from the mother’s busuuti).
When she got to P6 and boys began bothering her, she again ran to her heroine; her mother. It was her who told Mim what to do to push the errant boys off. And when she joined S1 and it was her own teacher who was asking her to do terrible things with him, she had no one else to flee to for counsel… her mother was there. Now, she was in the midst of a fresh, bigger crisis, and she did not know who to run to. This was not about her peers; her playmates; her teachers… It had come right home, and it involved her parents: Her father; her own biological father had pressured her into becoming her own mother’s rival! How could she break such news to her best friend, mentor and refuge?
While Mim is a fictional character in this article, her case is a common occurrence in Uganda. Print and electronic media have, from time to time, reported heartbreaking, jaw-dropping tales of girls who have undergone such horrendous experiences, you wish you could wake up and realize it was only a horrid dream… but it’s the sad reality. And heartbreakingly, the culprits are always those close to them. Girls’ education in Uganda is a story of gross uncertainty. It is a tale of an orphaned cripple having to walk, steadily, towards a wheelchair placed uphill. Too dismal? Only if you haven’t lived here long enough.
A 2010 UNICEF report called “School Dropout: Patterns, Causes and Policies” showed that the cardinal causes of girls dropping out of school are pregnancy, early marriages, hidden costs at school and family responsibilities. It showed that teenage pregnancy stood at 25% and 49% of girls got married before they reached the age of 18.
A February 6th, 2018 story in Daily Monitor quotes Greg Lavender of Plan International as saying, “All children need to access quality education. However, we need to agree that girls of school-going age are more vulnerable in Uganda.” He went ahead to say that a number of girls in Uganda don’t go to school when they are having their period, for lack of sanitary towels. While it is a natural phenomenon that all normal females undergo, menstruation at a certain stage, for many Ugandan girls, it is a kind of curse, because when the Ps come, trouble has arrived for them. Besides their male counterparts looking at them as weird, especially when their skirts get soiled for lack of sanitary towels, they also feel out of place due to the accompanying discomforts. And when they keep at home because of these issues, not all parents will be responsible enough to do something about it.
Many will take it as a blessing in disguise; they instead send the girls to the garden; to fetch firewood and water and sometimes to marry them off. The coming of the period is looked at as proof that they are ready to bear children. What more do they want? The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative reports that more than 700,000 girls in Uganda between the ages of six and 12 have never attended school. In fact, about half of girls between the ages of 15 and 24 are totally illiterate, and four in five girls do not attend high school. Because these girls drop out of school this early, their chances at life are grossly reduced.
Statistics show that educated mothers are more than twice likely to ensure that their own children are educated. They are also more likely to earn reasonable wages, thereby being able to support their families. But in the incidence that they drop out of school, this is never possible, so their own children end up being kept out of school. It is worse if the woman is a single mother; if she may have ended up dropping out due to pregnancy. It is cyclic.
Girls are not daft by nature. If anything, in many co-educational schools (those that admit both girls and boys), girls excel as much as the boys. Some of the best performing schools in this country are purely girls’ schools, like Nabisunsa Girls School, Gayaza High School, Mt. St. Mary’s Namagunga and Trinity College, Nabbingo. So the problem is not intellectual deficiency; the problem is social. Who is not doing their bit?
The government has taken some steps to help girls stay in school. Girls who join public universities still get that extra 1.5 points to boost their chances of getting a university education. Though some have contested this free mark, it cannot be ignored as a step in the right direction in the country’s efforts to help girls stay in school. When she knows that she will have that extra 1.5 points, she will be encouraged to push on, despite the many challenges.
The government has also made (primary) schools conducive for girls who are menstruating, so that being in one’s period does not hinder one from attending school. However, more can be done. In many cases, the people who make these girls pregnant are not prosecuted, which is a kind of inducement for others to go ahead and commit similar crimes. In fact, due to poverty, parents of these girls get into some kind of understanding with the offenders, who pay them off and the girls end up suffering.
Something decisive has to be done to help girls get into and, more importantly, stay in school. That way, the nation will progress because, like the old adage, when you educate a woman, you educate the entire community and this is no lie.
Bob G. Kisiki
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