Friday, July 7, 2017

Championing the rights of female students

A couple of weeks ago the Ugandan newspapers were a-buzz with the story of the late Professor Mukiibi, proprietor of the prestigious St Lawrence's chain of private schools and colleges for the wealthy offspring of Uganda's elite. No sooner had the Prof died but various young women came forward, his erstwhile students, claiming that he had seduced them. Indeed, some of the alleged victims asserted that they had given birth to his children. So seriously are the claims now being taken that MPs who belong to the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association have called for an immediate investigation. The Center for Domestic Violence and Prevention has demanded that the women and children concerned be supported by the government.

This is how The Monitor reported the story on 15 June.

"It is alleged that the late Mukiibi had a tendency of dating school girls, whom he later turned into concubines. However, early this week, the late Mukiibi's family dismissed the allegations as baseless and false. According to them, the allegations were intended to tarnish his business brand."

One can well imagine that the deceased's 'brand' might be in trouble. Indeed, the MPs also called for "the perpetrators' license [to be] revoked to make it a risky business for teachers and school administrators to abuse children who are under their tutelage." After all, private education is a business and reputation has a monetary value. It is one thing to rape a pupil in a village school - it happens all the time in Uganda. It is quite another to force oneself on the children of the elite.

The actual number of women and children affected remains unclear. However, as Mukiibi's family have no problem admitting to 24 children and seven widows, one can assume that the actual numbers of informal liaisons could be considerable.

The story first came to my attention when Facebook Friends of mine contributed to the comments which accompanied the articles. The line taken by those commenting was nothing like that adopted by the female MPs. Indeed, comment after comment commended the Professor for demonstrating the superior sexual prowess of African men. Others celebrated the joy of the 'chase' particularly when those hunted express reluctance.

An article also by The Monitor on 12 June gave an inkling of the privileged position of the St Lawrence schools.

'Mukiibi was wealthy and an avid supporter of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party which, combined with him owning star private schools in the country, placed him within a listening ear of the First Family whose children he taught in their formative stages of life.'

Indeed, Janet Museveni, Minister for Education and wife of the President, spoke the eulogy at Mukiibi's Requiem Mass, praising the Professor's positive impact in raising the standards of private education. (In fact rumours have been rife for some time that the schools were actually owned by the First Family, with Mukiibi just the 'front man'.)

Mme Museveni was followed by others of the great and the good, for example the Kabaka ('King') of Buganda, who praised Mukiibi's great contribution to education and the country as a whole. The Catholic church 'mourned Mukiibi, lauding him as a disciplined Christian who loved the Church'.  (In Uganda, polygamy, both formal and informal, is not considered incompatible with Christianity. Neither, apparently, is sex with children, even those for whom one has a duty of care.)

Indeed, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga described Mukiibi as 'a person of integrity and generosity who always put God first'.

However, the respected Archbishop was also not above exploiting the funeral service to argue a political viewpoint. He 'entreated the Education minister to block the East African Community Bill seeking to legalise abortion'.

"If passed into law, this Bill will turn the entire East African Community member States to legalise abortion and impose the use of contraceptives on all citizens, including children. Dear First Lady, we humbly appeal to you to save our children and our nation from this foreign campaign to ruin our children," Archbishop Lwanga said.

Odd, isn't it, that offering women the opportunity to use contraception becomes 'imposing' it on 'children'. All because of the wicked 'foreigners', of course. Polygamy OK. Contraception wrong. Have we got that clear? And sex with one's students? Ah, let's leave that one to the Mukiibi family.
I would imagine that you, like me, are completely bemused by now at the fluidity of moral principles both within education and within the Church. And who knows the truth of this story after all? Indications of the lauded Professor's extravagant sex life must have been floating around, or indeed, been covered up for years.

Stuart and I were warned very quickly, when in Uganda, never to enter into conversation with any men about their 'children' because of the potential complexity of their family lives. One of my best friends in Kampala only discovered she had several brothers and sisters when she went to her father's funeral, which was also attended by other families of his of which she had been completely unaware. Her father too was an acknowledged pillar of the Church, in his case the Episcopal Church of Uganda. The comfortable block of flats where we lived, was occupied by a number of 'side dishes', young women, attractive, relatively well educated, who, with their children, were 'kept' by prosperous older men. All fine, until the 'benefactor' lost interest.

And, of course, the fact that Mukiibi was, allegedly, a sexual predator, one who preyed on under-age girls, does not mean that in other respects he was not a good educationist, though if you don't respect half your students in one context, it is difficult to imagine you respecting them in other contexts. What he certainly was not, was a champion of women's rights, in particular their right to receive an education without being mauled and molested.

In the west, we too have had our shameful examples of the exploitation of young people of both sexes in education establishments which had a duty to keep them safe. Even if you have reached official maturity at the age of 18, the differences in extent of power between teachers and those taught make real genuine choice very difficult.

Now, why am I harping on about this story, given that I haven't lived in Uganda for five years?  Because when I was reading it I was in Malawi and some of the issues it raised coincided with some of my current concerns.

Last year I had carried out some background work for an exercise I was doing in relation to teacher education. I already knew about the vulnerability of school-aged girls in Malawi. Only the other week, 38 pupils in one secondary school alone were discovered to be pregnant. Who was to blame? The girls themselves, of course! They should have 'said no' to the men and boys propositioning, seducing or raping them. And, culturally, was that likely, let alone possible? No. In Malawi, even wives who say 'no' to sex may be turned out of the family home.

And what is the impact of such cultural attitudes on the health and wellbeing of all young people, but on young women in particular? A Press Release for the Symposium  on Coordination of Adolescent and Youth-Targeted HIV and AIDS and Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Programmes in Malawi included the following information.

  • More than two thirds of the population are under 30.
  • One third of the population is aged 10-24.
  • Young Malawians are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancies, child and forced marriages (boys as well as girls), and harmful cultural practices (for example, virginal girls being offered to older men for 'deflowering', or to cure AIDs or cancer or even 'to assure success in business' - see below).
  • The Malawi Demographic Health Survey 2015-2016 shows HIV prevalence among the 15-49 year olds to be 8.8%.
  • HIV among 10-24 year olds is 4.9% among girls and 1% among boys. (HIV/AIDS among girls is exacerbated by the physical damage done to immature female bodies by forced sex and early childbearing.)

The rate of teenage pregnancies in Malawi rose from 26% in 2010 to 29% in 2015.
Compare Malawi's rate of teenage pregnancies with that in the UK. Rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK have halved in the past two decades and are now at their lowest levels since record-keeping began in the late 1960s. Data from the Office for National Statistics revealed that in England just 14.5 per 1,000 births were to women in their teens - 1.45%.

Early this year, 32 children were expelled from a secondary school in Nkhata Bay, 16 pregnant girls and 16 boys. The boys were originally going to be charged with defilement (rape) but the charges were dropped. Instead, the girls and their parents were taken to court and fined. Those unable to pay, were sent to jail and missed their exams. None of the girls were allowed back into school. A common story. Except that the girls went to the High Court and challenged the decision, saying that under the Constitution they had a right to education. They were supported by the local Chair of the Child Protection Committee, herself a magistrate. Here is what a journalist called Dan Moshenberg wrote.

"Malawi is a poor country in which education is a struggle. For girls to complete secondary school is a particular struggle. In academic year 2014 – 2015, nationwide, pregnancy was the cause of 28 percent of all secondary female dropouts. In the Northern Region, in 2014 – 2015, 370 boys dropped out of primary school, while 2199 girls dropped out. During that same year, 145 boys dropped out of secondary school, while 463 girls left school. For the boys, the primary reason was inability to pay school fees. For the girls, fees (27.7 percent) and pregnancy (27.6 percent) were the primary reason. This is the context in which 16 girls were told to leave school, and then some were sent into police custody. They were never meant to return."

Last week, the Tanzanian President ruled that all pregnant school girls should be banned from attending school.

And, in Malawi, what about older girls, those who have survived secondary school and potential abusers and are training to be primary teachers? These young women go to teacher training college after the equivalent of GCSEs, so they are still quite young.

A USAID-funded study Teacher Training in Malawi: Efficiency and Costs, published in 2012, found the following.

"On average, 12% of male trainees and 16% of female trainees fail to complete their training and become certified... the largest drop off occurs during the year of residential training [Year 1 of a two-year course].  The reasons given for trainees dropping out at any point during [training] were most often joining another profession for men or marriage and/or pregnancy for women."

Men leave college early in order to enter a more attractive and probably rewarding line of work, not good for the teaching profession, but understandable. Women, in contrast, leave early with their hopes and prospects of education and employment significantly diminished. While the marriage/pregnancy rate was uneven across colleges, the rate in one college reached 23%. That is a lot of young women with their futures notably impaired.

Discussions elicited further information. Anecdotally, I was told of one college where one third of young women became HIV positive during their first year. I was told of predatory male tutors. I was told of sex in exchange for improved grades. I was told of how difficult it was to say 'no' when power is distributed so unevenly across the sexes.

I have also had informal discussions in other contexts. Someone working for a well-known NGO told me that she had carried out training with educationists on women's rights. None of the (male) group believed that if a woman said 'no' she really meant it. When asked what if a woman said 'no' and walked away, she was told that that just showed that the woman wanted to be 'chased'. I myself have been told by a senior educationist that it is young women who are responsible for their own seduction as they 'tempt' men in exchange for better marks. To which there is only one response: if young girls are supposed to 'say no to sex', then surely mature male lecturers are capable of doing the same.

Now none of this is unfamiliar in a western context. It is only in the last ten years or so that campuses in the UK and USA have drawn up strict guidelines about appropriate conduct in tutorials and other academic settings, and stressed the inappropriateness of sexual relationships between lecturers and students.

Still, it is all very depressing. One thinks of those ruined lives, those unwanted children, the waste of talent, the loss to the teaching profession, the blame accorded young women.

However, sexual exploitation is just one context for the exercising of women's rights. Change is possible, as we saw with the 16 girls who went to the High Court to demand their right to education. Indeed, there are people who are working hard to empower young women and to ensure that they are able to access their rights. And not just access, their rights, but embrace them.

Recently, I have been looking at the 'vision' and 'mission statements' of colleges, with a view to considering how staff could judge the extent to which they are genuinely being implemented, indeed, have a positive impact on the quality of education which students receive. Now while such statements can be a bit 'motherhood and apple pie', not just in colleges in Malawi but elsewhere in the world, I recently came across one which really impressed me.

This mission statement had been developed by St Joseph's Teacher Training College. St Joseph's was founded in 1937 by the missionary sisters of Our Lady of Africa. It is currently being administered by an order of Carmelites (Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, 'the first indigenous congregation for women in the Syro Malabar Church') whose mother house is in India and which works across both India and Africa.

St Joseph's has a lovely well-established campus, nestling at the foot of an escarpment in Bembeke, near Dedza, Central East Malawi.

This is the vision and mission statement which sums up what the college is aiming to achieve for the young women whom it serves.

To become a National Centre of Excellence in Training Female Primary School Teachers.


  • To train young ladies to become competent primary school teachers, who are physically, socially, spiritually and morally upright.
  • To promote Christian values with respect to human rights and human dignity and cultural diversity, to foster unity within the College, surrounding community and the nation.
  • To empower women to shoulder responsibilities, to serve in different leadership positions and to defend their rights. 

I like that last one: to defend their rights. And they will take on those who try to deny them those rights. The young women graduating from St Joseph's are expected to be resilient, confident and independent. They are not just going to be followers; they will be leaders. They are going to take responsibility for their lives and their futures.

Gradually, let us hope that those who champion the rights of female students, wherever in the world that might be, succeed in enabling them to grasp those rights and fend off those sexual predators who would deny them the chance to make a choice.

Newspaper links

In Malawi pregnant school girls demand education and respect!, Dan Moshenberg writing in Women in and beyond the Global, 3 May 2017. The story was also featured on a BBC Focus on Africa programme.

Increase in sex assault cases worries Malawi police, Nyasa Times, 30 June 2017

How the UK halved its teenage pregnancy rate, The Guardian, 18 July 2016

Legislators, Activists want govt to investigate late Mukiibi's sex life, The Monitor, 15 June 2017

Uganda: Ownership of Mukiibi Schools Revealed, The Monitor, 12 June 2017

Prof Mukiibi transformed education - Janet Museveni, The Monitor 1 June 2017

And this article, the link to which I have just been sent: Prof Mukiibi was a psychopath, predator, by Dr Nankozi K Muwanga, The Observer, 13 June 2017

This post from earlier on this Malawi blog

Rescuing girls, and sometimes boys as well

Also these posts from my Ugandan blog

Polygamy, Christianity and the Royal Family of Buganda

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