Mass sensitisation. As long as apathetic rural communities continue to glorify child-bearing while stigmatising a woman’s barrenness, sexuality education will have minimal impact in combating sexual violence against children in such societies. That is why the starting point ought to have been mass sensitisation to create grassroots awareness about the dangers of sexual violence against minors.
A statistically-backed status analysis of the nature, magnitude and ramifications of sexual violence against children in Uganda gives a deeply lamentable picture. Uganda is rated by several Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports as the country with the highest adolescent pregnancy rate in sub-Saharan Africa!
Roughly 43 per cent of girl children are pregnant or have given birth at least once by age 17, with serious repercussions on their health, school dropout, completion, and attendance rates. Child-bearing and sexual activities start as early as 14.
By 15 years of age, 30 per cent of female children have ever had unprotected sexual intercourse. And about 15 per cent of women aged 20-49 are married by the age of 15, and 49 per cent by age of 18. The median age at first marriage among women aged 25-49 has plateaued at 17.9 years for the past 30 years.
It is against the backdrop of these shocking statistical facts that the Ministry of Education and Sports launched the National Sexuality Education Framework in May 2018. This de facto sex education school curriculum seeks to deliver age-appropriate content focused majorly on basic sexual anatomy - reproduction, contraception, abstinence and a rundown of sexually transmitted diseases as well as ways to protect against them.
The ultimate intent is to create a sexually violence-free childhood by pre-emptively empowering school going children with the requisite sexuality-related knowledge and competencies to help curb unprotected sex, teen-age pregnancy, school dropouts, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/Aids.
But what are the chances that the teaching and learning of sexuality education per se in schools will indeed assist in reversing the tide of sexual abuse against children? Very slim, if any. There are three broad reasons why:
First, the Sexuality Education Framework itself already suffers from a credibility deficit since it lacks the much needed stakeholder buy-in or ownership for its expedited implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The majority of the conservative rural community (where the majority school children come from) still take sex to be a taboo subject.
And rather than view sexuality education as a tool for combating sexual violence against children, an overwhelming proportion of the rural population see it as a predisposing factor that will worsen the vulnerability of especially the girl-child! The Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox church leadership are already up in arms against certain provisions of the framework, which they think will compromise the sanctity of Christian teachings (See ‘Church’s protest halts sex education in schools’ in the Daily Monitor paper of January 1.
In effect, therefore, the framework is a foregone casualty of a non-inclusive top-down policy formulation process that alienates the good will and support of some very key stakeholders.
Secondly, school institutions that are meant to be the cardinal vehicles for effective delivery of sexuality education are both technically and logistically deficient. Among other things, Uganda’s education system is characterised by outmoded pedagogy, high levels of both teacher and pupil absenteeism, generally low levels of accountability, inadequate infrastructure, high pupil to teacher ratios, low completion rates, shortage of instructional materials, resource misallocation, and violence against children, including sexual abuse.
All these have seriously dented children’s learning outcomes. Annual Uwezo reports have frequently made reference to the paradox of children’s school attendance without commensurate learning.
But most importantly, lack of sexuality education and information is but only one contributory factor to the sexual exploitation of juveniles. There are myriad other permissive factors which are outside the control of schools. They include poverty, patriarchal power relations and cultural norms that promote the gendered subordination, exclusion and “commodification” of the girl-child. Others are environmental degradation, HIV/Aids, malfunctioning police, health and judicial institutional frameworks, public unawareness of legal and human rights, ad infinitum.
No amount of sexuality education will protect a girl from an acutely poor household who circumstantially sees early marriage as a viable “escape route” against getting sexually compromised. A girl with adequate sexuality education, but who because of environmental degradation has to travel long distances to look for wood fuel or to fetch water, is extremely vulnerable when confronted by predatory boys or men.
And, as long as apathetic rural communities continue to glorify child-bearing while stigmatising a woman’s barrenness, sexuality education will have minimal impact in combating sexual violence against children in such societies.
That is why the starting point ought to have been mass sensitisation to create grassroots awareness about the dangers of sexual violence against minors. Unfortunately, our policy makers appear to delight in starting from where they ought to end and celebrate ending where they should have started from!