Last Sunday, March 8, was International Women’s day. Apparently there were many celebrations and ceremonies in various towns and cities to mark the occasion. The newspapers and speeches emphasized the importance of educating girls and encouraging them to attend universities. Women’s rights are one of the three primary development goals in Uganda (the other two being environmental concerns and HIV/AIDS). The government and church representatives actively promote issues of equality and equal schooling for boys and girls. Many Sundays in church we have listened to preachers encouraging men to help women with their work and to actively support them.
The next day as I was walking into town, I met two men (we had spoken before) who have asked me to find them a muzungu (white) wife. I have told they will be waiting a very, very long time! This time, when they greeted me, they asked me how I celebrated Women’s Day. (We had spent the whole day at a church fundraising event). Then they asked me when I could bring back a white friend as a bride. I have asked what they want from a white women - money? prestige? They have not had a ready answer, only that a white woman is ‘better’.
On Tuesday, we visited Masheruka Girls Secondary School. We had a chance to speak to some of the girls for a couple hours. They dream about going to university (and some will), and becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants and civil engineers. In Uganda, 33% of girls do not finish secondary school because they enter into early marriages. Some students we spoke to said that one challenge of attending school was that they were constantly told at home that they were useless and wasting time and money by going to school.
The students also told me that very few girls enter sciences because sciences are too difficult for girls, and girls are naturally better at arts, so most enter the arts. (I hope I encouraged them in this area). Interestingly, the government has come under criticism recently for focusing scholarships in the science disciplines. This is to encourage students to work in the fields that the government needs. But the side effect is that fewer girls are awarded scholarships for university.
School fees are a challenge for all students. Some of the girls we spoke to were confident that they were heading to university. Their parents have saved enough to allow them to attend. These girls also told me that it is common for the educated to get married after university (at 27-28 years of age). Other girls will not be able to afford these fees and will become primary teachers and nurses (regardless of their desire to do so – this results in many dissatisfied teachers and nurses!). Other girls are not sure they will continue after secondary. They struggle to pay school fees each semester. If their parents cannot afford school fees, an ‘uncle’ or friend may offer to pay fees for them. Unfortunately, this generosity often comes with a price. Many girls are ‘encouraged’ by these men to exchange sex for money. Cross-generational sex is a major issue in Uganda and a high risk factor for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The day we visited the school, they were having ‘pregnancy palpation’. The nurses come to the school once a semester and check all the girls for pregnancy. Anyone who is pregnant must leave school and is not allowed to return. This is to maintain the moral standards set by the school. I asked what consequences existed for the male counterpart – there are few or none. The girls who become pregnant are faced with another moral choice between marriage, or abortion.
Virginity is highly valued in girls for a number of reasons. Many are concerned about the morality of sex outside marriage. More practically, the groom still pays a bride price to the family of the girl when they get married (up to $5000, a significant amount of money here).
The students we spoke to shared the challenges and opportunities they face growing up in Uganda. They are aware that Uganda is changing. More and more girls are attending school at all levels. These bright and motivated students have many hopes and dreams for the future. I hope that their families and society allow them to achieve their potential.