When a Christian university suspended unwed female students because they were pregnant, uproar on social media came in floods.
There was camp outrage and protest against discrimination of women and the girl child. Then, there was the other side who insisted the Christian and church founded university has a clear code of conduct that guides student behaviour that all students in the university are well aware of and agreed to abide by before they joined the institution. Among them is that they will not engage in premarital sex.
It was not long before those protesting the action surged ahead with a section of the civil society and Parliament throwing their weight behind them.
However, the discussion was far from over as Barham University College Kabale, a constituent college of Uganda Christian University said it acted within its rights to suspend students who contravene their code of conduct. John Musisi Senyonyi UCU’s vice chancellor last week wrote an opinion in one of the dailies defending the suspension on moral grounds.
According to the university, pregnancy outside wedlock implied they had fornicated which goes against rules in the university’s code of conduct.
Media reports had earlier stated that 26 girls were expelled, but the university clarified that only three students were suspended towards the end of the semester in April.
“They were not even expelled nor were they suspended. They were told to go give birth, nurse the babies and come back when they have finished,” Reuben Twinomujuni, the university’s spokesman said.
Speaking via telephone to this newspaper last Friday, Twinomujuni painted the decision as one born of concern for the young mothers.
“We treasure women and the unborn children. We realise the struggles of being a mother and they simply could not handle [them] with struggles of exams and books,” he said.
He, however, said the university does not support sexual immorality, which is implied when no action is taken against pregnant unwed mothers.
Over the years, Twinomujuni said, there have been several other suspensions since it has always been the policy.
There are several religious run or sponsored institutions of higher learning in Uganda, each with its own code of conduct. If there is one thing denominations and religions seem to all be in agreement with, it is that pregnant and unwed persons do not go hand in hand with the code of conduct.
The Islamic University in Uganda for instance, requires all female students to have a pregnancy test at a university-run clinic at the beginning of each semester, according to Mohammed Mpeeza, the vice Rector, academic department at IUIU, who is also the chairman of the University’s disciplinary committee.
Those found pregnant go through a process of explaining their circumstances, Dr Mpeeza says, adding, “We approach each case differently.”
For instance, female students who don’t declare their marital status and are found pregnant have to produce proof of marriage, he further explains, adding that they will also be asked to move out of the halls of residence and seek accommodation outside the campus.
Those unable to prove any form of formal union will have to go through several other confirmatory tests after which they will have to face the disciplinary process.
“It is a long process but if she is found to be really unwed and pregnant then it is a breach of university regulations which she agreed to abide by and she shall surely be dismissed,” adds Dr Mpeeza.
What some students have resorted to
Each university has its own method of handling pregnancy among unwed students.
That notwithstanding, cases of girls going to extreme lengths to terminate or camouflage pregnancy for fear of disciplinary measures but end up putting their lives in danger, are not new: tales of near death experiences because of unsafe abortion attempts or painstakingly trying to cover up the ever growing belly so the university administration does not get wind of it, are common at universities.
An article published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year quotes the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) report which states that an estimated 297,000 induced abortions occur in Uganda each year. And a big number of these are students who fear retribution from authorities for becoming pregnant.
“Women use crude ways. They insert whatever objects, they take herbs, whatever, to force [the] foetus to come out,” Maureen, a maternal health advocate is quoted in the article telling CRR in its report on unsafe abortion and inadequate access to contraception in Uganda.
What becomes of the girls
While public universities contacted were reluctant to address the matter, a case of suspension due to pregnancy outside wedlock at a public university is unheard of.
The 14-year-old constituent college of Uganda Christian University at the centre of this saga says through its dean of students and secretary of the disciplinary committee, Godwin Kiiza, that the three girls can resume school later.
Kizza says the one year hiatus will not feature anywhere on their transcript when they eventually graduate. While they missed the just concluded semester’s exams and will miss an academic year, they get off easy compared to those in similar circumstances at other universities. For instance, IUIU dismissal is final.
“We kindly ask such a person to go finish the business of giving birth and complete their schooling elsewhere,” says IUIU’s rector.
At the Kabale-based university, a fourth student who was supposed to be suspended with the three was saved by what sounds like an eleventh hour marriage and was able to sit for her exams.
IUIU’s Mpeeza said it can go as far as bringing parents to attest that they are aware and approve of their daughter’s union with a certain man.
Dr Mpeeza said it has worked well in the case of IUIU.
“Not one student has been found pregnant and unwed in seven years,” he said adding, that what pushed down the incidences, which were rampant, was when the university cracked the whip on what he terms bad behaviour.
Twinomujuni also said cases when they have to suspend an unmarried female student due to pregnancy are rare.
Whether this indicates success against bad behaviour and sexual immorality or just indicates that students have become really good at covering their tracks by using birth control or abortion, is still up for debate.
Punishing girls only?
Another point of contention that keeps coming up is that in the institutions’ pursuit for moral standards, the female students are the casualties. The argument is that boys do not get pregnant and so far it appears it is the pregnant girls on whom action is being taken.
On that matter, Twinomujuni says the rules are clear: Any student found engaging in sexual immorality at the university will be suspended, male or female.
Still the scales tip heavily on the girl’s side. For example, he could only name one case where a male student was suspended for one year after he was found in the female students’ hall of residence.
It however irks Robina Kaitiritimba, the executive director of Uganda National Health Consumers Organisation who was part of the voices calling the universities actions discriminatory that whatever men were involved have not suffered an interruption in their academics.
“The girls had paid school fees yet they had to leave while possibly the boys involved can go scot-free. It is simply not fair to the girl child whatever the motivation,” she said.
She said the practice of discontinuing female students who get pregnant outside wedlock is not in agreement with the Constitution. “Yes, they have rules and regulations but it is not the law,” she said.
Mpeeza is not indifferent on this issue, “This is the painful part. That there is nothing to show that the boys were up to any mischief, so they get off the hook almost always and the girls suffer alone.”
What the education minister says
John Chrizestom Muyingo, the Minister in charge of Higher Learning, said it is not right for schools, much less tertiary institutions, to penalise girls for getting pregnant while unmarried.
However, he is reluctant to commit a direct government intervention to protect girl children from such suspensions.
“Any declaration may be later challenged by Parliament and then in the back and forth, would drag it on until someone feels it suits them to support it. It is difficult,” he said.
For now, Dr Muyingo recommends dialogue between the university’s administration and those affected to finish the matter amicably.
However, the university codes of conduct stand, causing another round of debate every time action is taken against anyone who breaks them.
This debate is always about whether taking action will stop the crime or just punish the offender.