Thursday, February 17, 2011

Young, female and the world at their feet...well, perhaps

The results are out!  The other week it was the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) results; last week it was the turn of ‘O’ Level.

The press had the usual pages of beaming pupils with proud parents or teachers – not much different from Britain, though at least here in Uganda we are spared the pretty girls at privileged schools shrieking on cue at TV cameras.  No doubt, like most things, it will come.

When ascribing reasons for their success at ‘O’ level, young people appear to place God rather lower down the list of contributory factors than their younger siblings.  Whereas almost all the PLE stars had apparently excelled because they had gone down on their knees every night, the S4 achievers were quite definite about it: they had done well because they had worked hard!

‘I spent sleepless nights reading and I sometimes missed meals because I was revising,’ said one boy.

And teachers were much more likely to get some credit as well.   ‘Our teachers really did a good job,’ said one student. ‘They taught us how to answer questions and not to fear examinations and told us that if others passed we shall also pass.’ 

More pupils sat ‘O’ level this year, as a result of the introduction of Universal Secondary Education (USE).  Performance overall has fallen, hardly surprising if more candidates are sitting, especially when they come from over-crowded USE schools.  The head of the Ugandan National Examinations Board (UNEB) said that the failure rate was quite low despite the increase in candidates.  Sadly, one in three of USE pupils beginning secondary school dropped out.  Others have had to repeat classes or were not allowed to sit the examination.  Such negative experiences will have had a significant effect on young people’s self-esteem and represents a tragic waste of talent and potential.

There is also a huge disparity in performance between urban and rural schools.  As the Daily Monitor says, ‘Many of these (the poorly performing) districts have suffered armed conflict, floods or famine or are newly created.’

The reference to ‘newly created’ districts relates to the enormous increase in the number of local authorities over the last two or three years, an increase of almost a third again, brought about by splitting existing districts.  The official reason for creating new districts is to provide more jobs and bring services nearer to the people.  Cynics could argue that it simply provides more bureaucrats which the country can ill afford.   Indeed, people given these new jobs, in particular the ‘facilitation’ (expenses) which go with them, may be unduly motivated to demonstrate their gratitude at the ballot box.  Constant change at local government level, however, has a seriously negative impact on the educational achievements and long-term prospects of young people in schools.

There is an ongoing debate in Uganda about the wisdom of extending education to the whole of the population, given the fall in standards.  Stuart and I would tend to argue that USE has enabled many young people to achieve success who would otherwise have been excluded, though, admittedly, the resultant overcrowding has had a negative impact on some other pupils.    To us in the west, education is a fundamental right.  However, in Uganda, educational initiatives, of which there are many, have often been poorly funded and announced at very short notice.  One example is the unexpected announcement during a Presidential campaign rally shortly before Christmas, of the extension of USE to ‘A’ level, starting this month.  As far as we know, no extra funding or in-service training has been made available.  Anyway, there is no money: it has all been spent on political campaigns.  Initiatives also take time to implement right across the country.  Only about a quarter of secondary schools have science labs, for example, with many making do with a science store.  Encouragingly, the better equipped schools tend to be the government schools where some effort has been made nationally to improve science education.  And, of course, there is the usual Ugandan problem of resources intended for schools being diverted elsewhere.
So much energy and potential.
So, how did the girls do at ‘O’ level?  Very poorly in comparison with the boys, I am sorry to say.  Whereas in the UK we are now accustomed to girls out-performing boys, only a third of the Ugandan pupils achieving Division 1 passes, were girls, though, like their British peers, they did do better than the boys in English.  In 20 districts, not one single girl achieved at Division 1 and in 19 others, less than five achieved at this level.  Girls are less likely to make it through P7 and sit the PLE, less likely to do well at PLE and therefore less likely to get into the better secondary schools, despite positive discrimination over entry requirements. 
Let's hope these girls make it to secondary school.
Once in secondary school, girls continue to lag behind or leave early.  Regular readers of this blog will by now be able to chorus the reasons: early marriage, defilement (rape), poverty and low parental aspirations.  Addressing these issues requires schools to influence the attitudes and traditions of parents and communities.  The experiences of these girls’ mothers will have been shaped by their gender.  They themselves will probably have been married very young and although many want something better for their daughters, they may also have low expectations or limited understanding of what is possible.  They are often almost overwhelmed with responsibilities and household tasks, so it is hardly surprising that they keep their children, particularly their daughters, at home to help them.
The average Ugandan family of seven.
Ugandan families have, on average, seven children and in the rural areas, nearer to 10 or 12.  Even in towns, water has to be collected, often from quite far away, not just for drinking, but for family washing and household cleaning.  Ugandan women work hard at keeping their compounds and houses clean.  They continually sweep away the ubiquitous red dust, which so easily turns into sticky red mud, slash the grass to keep away snakes, and shop for, grow, harvest and cook family food.  Washing hangs on long lines, or is draped over bushes and grass, or the banks of nearby (or not so nearby) rivers.  All this, while they are almost permanently pregnant or nursing a baby.    Improving girls’ prospects and maximising their potential will require more than a change in their families’ attitudes.  It will require a fairer and more equitable distribution of the country’s resources overall.
  • One quarter of all women in Uganda have had no education beyond 15.  Many stopped school far earlier than that, being at least twice as likely as men to have dropped out of primary school.  Only 66% of women over 15 are literate, compared with 82% men.
  • Women over 60 form 5% of the total population.  20% are literate, compared with 57% men.

  • 11% of all women are widows.  Of these, 80% are heads of household, many older women bringing up orphaned grandchildren. 89% of them are economically active (usually agriculture), 70% are illiterate, 58% have never been to school and a similar proportion are disabled. 
  • The rate of child marriage is 46%: 27% in urban areas and 52% in rural areas.

  • 50% of girls under 15 (roughly 4 million) have suffered sexual assault, many becoming HIV positive as a result.  A recent Save the Children Fund study found that 60% of girls in Apac District (northern Uganda) had conceived when they were under age.

  • One in 25 women dies in childbirth, as a result of the impact of labour on immature bodies, exhaustion after repeated pregnancies or endemic disease (for example, malaria).

 (Uganda National Household Survey 2009/10 and World Bank survey 2008.)

So what are schools doing to support girls?

Girls with a future.
Quite a lot, actually.  Many initiatives are on the go, though as you would expect, some schools are more energetic than others in implementing them.  For example, schools are encouraged to have a Girls' Education Movement (GEM) club, a national initiative to improve the status and participation of 'the girl child' (as Ugandans rather quaintly call them) in school life. The clubs raise aspirations and increase awareness of the importance of school attendance for all children.  Other initiatives like Child-friendly schools and Safe Schools, while not specific to girls, contain a number of elements which support them and help them to keep themselves safe.  Similarly, the President's Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to Youth (PIASCY) aims to educate young people about sex and HIV/AIDS, and how to protect themselves.

One of the main causes of girls dropping out of school is lack of access to sanitary pads and appropriate sanitation.  Even if they manage to go to school, they may suffer bullying from boys, for rudimentary toilet facilities make it difficult for girls to retain their privacy and dignity.  We were encouraged when we recently visited a government primary school an hour’s drive away from Kampala to find that, in line with Ministry advice, a female member of staff acted as Supervisor for the girls and a room had been put aside for them to rest and wash.  The school supplied sanitary pads and had a stock of spare uniforms.  However, this was a relatively good school with a strong, committed and experienced headteacher, carrying out recommended policy.

Commendably, the media also provide valuable support for female empowerment.  New Vision, for example, has set up a Woman Achiever award for those who have excelled in a particular field.  In 2007, a runner-up award went to a young woman, director of an NGO called Uganda Gender Rights Foundation, who had set up a business making briquettes out of environmental waste, replacing charcoal for cooking.  The number of women employed had increased from 30 in 2007 to 500 in 2010.  The NGO then opened a vocational school for disadvantaged girls who cannot pay school fees, are school drop-outs or are living with HIV.

Uganda Women’s Media Association and its radio station Mama FM promote gender equality and active participation of women in decision making. It educates them about their ‘rights, freedoms, roles, responsibilities, and civic duties’ and strives to counter the’ negative portrayal of women in and by the media’.  It also makes girls and women aware of able and successful female role models, and there are many of these in Uganda, including some of the people we work with!

These are positive initiatives to improve the education of girls and raise their aspirations.  But what about the ‘big’ negatives, the events which can devastate girls’ lives? 

Child rape is one of the most common crimes in Uganda, and the rates are rising.  Save the Children Uganda states that "over 25 children are defiled every day in this country which further translates into two children every hour." 

Police figures published in the Guardian in October 2010 state that from January to June 2010, in the eastern region, 535 suspected defilement cases were registered.  205 went to court, 209 cases are pending, while only seven convictions were secured.  It is difficult to prove the age of children in a country where few births are registered.  In many cases, families do not pursue the case but settle out of court for financial gain.    One wonders what the price is for a traumatised daughter.  Tragically, the physical violence associated with rape makes girls particularly susceptible to HIV infection.  Many defilement victims also end up in early marriages. 

We would argue that these are not simply girls’ issues, they are boys’ issues.  Why are there no 'Boys' Education Movement' clubs in schools?  What are schools, and what is society doing to change the attitudes and behaviour of young men?  Girls are raped by other girls’ brothers and fathers, by other mothers’ sons and husbands.  They may also be raped by their own fathers, of course, by their teachers or by other trusted, often professional, figures within the community, the latter, sadly and falsely, often offering to support their secondary education.  Surely, it is men, the perpetrators, who should be educated to change their attitudes and behaviour.

While polygamy does still exist, Ugandan men who are not polygamous may have a number of ‘side dishes’, young women and often underage girls.  Promiscuity or the 'social network' place young girls at great risk.  Schools are full of exhortatory posters with messages like ‘be wary of sugar daddies’ and ‘remain a virgin’.  The assumption is that it is a girl’s responsibility to keep herself safe.  Although individual schools and NGOs do some very good work in empowering girls, there is very little awareness in wider Ugandan society of children’s rights, and of the responsibilities of public bodies and of all adults as citizens to protect them.  Article 34 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child asserts that it is the responsibility of states to ‘undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse’.  The UN defines a ‘child’ as a young person under 18, the age of our secondary school pupils.  

Instead of taking the protection of children, and of girls in particular, seriously, Ugandan society has somehow got diverted into an irrelevant and murderous witch-hunt against consenting adult homosexuals.  One would almost suspect this diversion of being deliberate.  So American-funded born-again pastors rant hysterically from the pulpit, representatives of gay organisations have their skulls smashed by iron bars and the state has a Bill before Parliament to bring in the death penalty for homosexuality.  Obscure religious laws from nearly three thousand years ago are used as justification.  It is difficult to imagine Jesus of Nazareth advocating such brutality.   In the meantime, day after day, week after week, we read terrible news stories of girls being raped, and these are a tiny percentage of actual cases: those which come to the attention of the police, end up in court, result in a sentence and reach the papers. The rate of sexual abuse against girls in Uganda is beyond anything that twenty-first century society should tolerate.   

And the worst of it all is the impact on young people of both sexes of the messages which Ugandan society is inadvertently or deliberately sending out.  Boys learn that it doesn’t matter what men do to damage girls, the real villains in society are the tiny number of demonised homosexuals.  Girls learn that they are not important, that adults will do little to protect them and that it is their own responsibility to stop themselves being raped.  And these attitudes seep into every aspect of Ugandan life. 

Is it any wonder that so many girls do not believe in themselves, do not value themselves and do not succeed in school?

You may also be interested in this UNICEF video: Girls' Education Movement helps girls to attend school in Uganda

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