The kerfuffle between the clergy and the State in Uganda, over the return of teenage mothers to school, is evidence that society is yet to be cured of the corrosive cultural biases against the girl child.
As schools reopened this week after a two-year hiatus, the government of Uganda found itself in a spot of bother when the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, expressed a reluctance to have pregnant or lactating teenage mothers, enrolled back into faith-based schools. In one extreme case, James Ssebagala, the Bishop of Mukono diocese in central Uganda, instructed headteachers at church founded schools not to admit teenage mothers.
Coming from a preacher of the gospel, this stance is problematic from two standpoints. As one cartoonist reminded Bishop Ssebagala, Christianity teaches forgiveness and accommodation.
If retribution should be the course in the present circumstances, fairness requires that punishment is apportioned equally among the parties to the crime.
Accommodating pregnant or breastfeeding teenagers in school raises practical questions but the debate in Uganda has an hostile edge to it and is more representative of long-held biases against motherhood outside the institution of marriage. Fixated with tradition and religious dogma, few commentators have tackled the deeper questions around cause and effect of teenage pregnancy as well as equity in handing down sanctions.
What are the longer-term consequences of denying these teenage mothers a second chance? Which is the lesser evil; bending convention to save a young woman’s future or condemning two souls to an uncertain existence?
The vulnerable and weaker party in this, the teenage mothers have been left to carry the cross of a few moments of passion, while their male partners in crime, appear to have simply diffused into the background.
For the unfortunate girls that number in the dozens of thousands in Uganda alone, this is double jeopardy. Besides carrying the physical burden of their predicament, they are suffering the additional punishment of being denied an opportunity to remedy their situation.
This is neither fair nor viable. Mostly underage, the teenage mothers have been taken advantage of mainly by male adults.
Unfortunately, what is happening is not unique to Uganda. Until President Samia Suluhu took the bull by the horns to reverse her predecessor’s policy, teenage mothers in Tanzania suffered the fate their Ugandan counterparts face now. In Kenya, the default position has been to see no evil, hear no evil of men and boys who defile schoolgirls. At least the teenage mothers here resume school.
The commonsense approach to the dilemma of teenage mothers, should be to focus on what needs to be done to salvage their chances at education. A major concern is how the pregnant or lactating mothers would fit in with the rest of the class and the level of preparedness of the teachers to cope with their extra needs. The possibility of select schools creating special streams where all teenage mothers can converge to continue learning, should be explored.
Just like other children, these girls deserve a fair shot at education and it is the duty of the state, religious leaders and all stakeholders to enable their aspirations.