Sunday, 11 November 2012

Puberty, pregnancy and PLE

Thank goodness the PLE is over! The Primary Leaving Examination, taken in Primary 7, is the door to the future for Ugandan pupils. Sadly, all too often that door slams shut.

If a child reaches P7, he or she has done well. Such pupils are the lucky survivors. They represent the 30% of pupils who complete primary education. They have shown that they can learn abstract and theoretical concepts and have demonstrated their resilience and determination. They may have:
  • carried jerry cans of water to and from the borehole before and after lessons
  • walked several kilometres, often barefoot, to get to school
  • survived beatings from the teacher for being late
  • studied in classes of 100 or more pupils
  • managed to go all day without food
  • done their homework by candlelight or paraffin lamp, often lying on the floor of the hut.
For girls, the obstacles can be even greater. They have more domestic tasks and their education is less valued. Most significant of all, the final two years at school coincide with girls reaching puberty. It is at P5, when girls are aged 10-12, that most of them drop out of school, usually for practical reasons. Often, their families cannot afford sanitary pads so girls find it almost impossible to go to school. Some schools show girls how to make their own pads using papyrus, rags and waste paper, some provide special washrooms and spare clothes. Most, however, do little to help.

However, even if girls have access to sanitary pads, reaching puberty means they are at risk. For many, sadly, puberty means the end of education. Why? Because their parents often plan to marry them off. Marriage before age 18 is illegal, but that makes no difference. Only 20% of births are registered, and so there is usually no proof that a girl is underage. The key incentive for parents is the bride price paid by the man.

'We cannot get many cows and goats from educated girls,' said one mother in West Nile, 'so we give them when they are still young...'

One of my Ugandan friends, Pamela, told me a very sad story. She had gone up north to check on the progress of a very able P7 girl who was due to sit PLE in a couple of weeks. The sponsor paying the girl's fees was concerned because she had not received a school report for some time. When Pamela arrived at the school, the girl was nowhere to be seen. On making enquiries at the village, it turned out that she had been 'married off' to an older man in another village by her alcoholic father. And the price of this young girl? A bottle of waragi (Ugandan gin) and Shs20,000 (£5).

 Last week, the Ugandan newspapers carried various stories about PLE candidates, many of them concerning girls. For example, in Ngora District, 34 girls did not sit the exams because they were either pregnant or married off by their parents. In Kasese, 40 girls sat PLE while pregnant and 20 missed it for the same reason. Multiply these figures across the 120 districts which make up Uganda and you can see the scale of the problem. Some determined girls actually took the exam while in labour.  Babies were born before, after and even during the exams. One 14-year-old spent three days in labour, two of these in the exam room. She eventually delivered by caesarian section. 

Now, a few years ago, no girl would have been allowed to attend school while pregnant, let alone when delivery was imminent. However, districts and schools are more enlightened these days and many pride themselves on the support they give to girls in this situation.

However, let’s just stop and think for a minute. How can primary-aged girls have become pregnant in the first place? Any girl in this situation has been raped, for sexual relations with girls of that age are illegal.

Not one newspaper story mentioned the men responsible for impregnating these girls. Why did we not hear that 34 men from Ngora and 60 men from Kasese were in jail pending trial for rape? 

Easy to answer, that one. Because they weren't. Getting pregnant is considered the girl's 'fault'. How likely is it that girls aged 10-15, particularly those keen to take their PLE and progress to further study, should deliberately go out and seduce older men? One striking statistic is that in Uganda 50% of girls under 15 have been 'sexually abused', a euphemism for rape. Many become HIV positive as a result.

In the Kabale area, pregnant girls used to be thrown off waterfalls or stranded on Punishment Island. Nowadays they are married off at a reduced price as damaged goods. Both then and now, such girls and their unborn babies are regarded as objects, things to be disposed of.

However, I think they are among the bravest people I know.

1 comment:

  1. This articles gave me chills all the way through reading it. This is really sad. Thanks for sharing this.