On one of our recent community visits to run focus groups in Central Uganda, we were surprised by some of the signs plastered around the primary school building, where the focus groups were held.
The first signs outside the building were innocent, with messages like “DO NOT LITTER”, “ALWAYS BRUSH YOUR TEETH”, “WASH YOUR HANDS REGULARLY” and confusingly mixed in with the orders, “ALL GIRLS MENSTRUATE”.
Once inside the primary school, the signs continued, with a much more serious tone. Above educational posters on colonialism, the definition of SOPs, and labelled diagrams of toilet cisterns, the instructions read “AVOID BAD TOUCHES”, “NEVER ACCEPT GIFTS FOR SEX”, “ABSTAIN”, “EARLY SEX IS BAD”, “ALWAYS TEST FOR HIV”, “DELAY SEX”, and seemingly less sex-oriented “STAY AT SCHOOL”. It made us wonder how many girls drop out here due to early pregnancies, as the signs suggest it is a real problem, like what we’ve heard of in the Maasai communities in Tanzania. Nevertheless, for us foreign visitors, it was unusual to see this messaging being given so early for primary school children.
Our taxi driver later told us that the average monthly salary in Uganda is about £100-£200, but a term of school fees could be £250-£300 per term (note this was his recount and not verified with research statistics). He said that parents had to choose to live in a run-down shack and eat only 1 meal a day so they could send their children to school. In addition, parents were reluctant to send their girls to secondary school because it would require paying motorbike drivers to take them there. He said that motorbike drivers taking advantage of the young girls is really common, not just from forced attacks, but also grooming as they can easily offer the girls food/money which the parents can’t afford. Once the girls get pregnant they have to drop out of school. According to him, it is a known problem, but not one that gets reported or fixed, potentially because the people causing the violations are a part of the community. It explains why the primary school we visited was full of so many anti-sex signs, which I thought was a bit much for a primary school, but circumstances are very different to what we are used to in the UK, and this was probably to prepare them for what may come after.
One of the secondary school teachers we work with in Tanzania told us that if a girl becomes pregnant, there is a unwritten law saying she cannot continue her education and she must be expelled from school. Many of the teachers feel this rule is unfair, especially as if the girl was raped against her will, she not only has to deal with the trauma but also loses all chances at an education. According to the teachers we spoke to, some girls attempt suicide as a result. To try and help the girls, many schools try to hide if a girl becomes pregnant and do not report her to the authorities. Instead, they quietly let them change schools after giving birth, giving them a fresh start without judgement, so they may continue their education and hopefully build a future for themselves.