Bishop Ssebagala is wrong about pregnant schoolgirls

Author: Muniini K. Mulera. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • My mind immediately remembered the beautiful New Testament story in John 8:1-11 about the woman whom the Pharisees wanted to stone to death because she had been caught in adultery.

Dear Tingasiga:

“Block pregnant girls from attending school, bishop tells teachers.” This headline, in the Daily Monitor of Monday January 10, was quite startling. Anglican Bishop James Ssebagala of Mukono was reported to have declared war against pregnant and breastfeeding girls in church funded schools.

My mind immediately remembered the beautiful New Testament story in John 8:1-11 about the woman whom the Pharisees wanted to stone to death because she had been caught in adultery.

Jesus said to them, “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” The Pharisees went away one by one, beginning with the older ones.

I do not wish that the bishop and others who think like him go away, one by one. Instead, I invite Ssebagala and fellow Ugandans to a conversation about this life-and-death matter.

Hopefully, we shall free ourselves from our archaic tribal attitudes and appreciate the realities of the world as it is, not as we wish it was.

Medical and social science researchers have published excellent data that paints a grim reality that cannot be wished away by throwing pregnant girls out of school. In Uganda, 50 percent of females and 40 percent of males aged 15-19 years are sexually active.

In the 18–19-year age group, 77 percent of females and 59 percent of males are sexually active.

One of the consequences of sexual intercourse is pregnancy. Worldwide, teenage pregnancy occurs in 25 percent of 13-19-year-old girls every year.

The figure for Sub-Saharan Africa is 28 percent. The figures for Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria are 25, 25, and 28 percent respectively. Eighty percent of these pregnancies are unintended.

A recent study in the Rivers State in Nigeria found a 76 percent prevalence of teenage pregnancy. That is not a typing error. Nearly eight out of ten girls became pregnant before 18 years of age. 60 percent became pregnant before 15 years of age.

Now, these figures, which have been high for many years, will not be changed by angry sermons by bishops or other people in authority. The fate of the girls and their off spring will not be improved by throwing them out of school or deepening the stigma that already afflicts them.

To be sure, the problem will not be altered by well-meaning appeals to teenagers to abstain from sexual intercourse. The teenager’s spirit may be willing but, often, the flesh is weak. The lack of adequate education and knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health exposes them to risk-taking behaviours.

What are some of the determinants of early sexual activities? The most important is normal sexual development. Recognition of this reality will save us the headache and frustration that comes with seeing the outward manifestation of normal biological and psychological development.

Other determinants of early sexual activities include low education/illiteracy, inadequate knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, adolescent rebellion, parent-child discord, exposure to media with sexual content, peer pressure, consumption of drugs and alcohol, and sexual exploitation by older people.

What are the consequences of teenage pregnancy? Besides the medical risks to the young mother and her baby, a discussion of which is outside the scope of my letter today, the pregnant teenager faces emotional trauma, often made worse by social stigmatization and shaming. She faces violence, or abandonment by her sexual partner.

Besides feeding Bishop Ssebagala’s desire to punish victims of reality, throwing them out of school would be adding insult to injury. It would push the girls into deeper poverty, with severe socio-economic consequences for them and their children, and for their families and the country. Furthermore, it would increase the likelihood of follow- up pregnancies. Studies in North

America show repeat pregnancies in 25 percent within one year, and 35 percent within two years.

This global health problem cannot be eradicated with angry sermons from the pulpit or hiding our heads in the sand or legislated morality. You cannot cure immorality with punishment.

Executions of pregnant unmarried girls by throwing them over the steep waterfall at Kisiizi in Kigyezi did not stop premarital sex and pregnancy.

As Christians, we should continue to preach the gospel of salvation and transformation through Jesus Christ.

We should continue to speak about humanity’s sinful nature, including the ease with which sexual sin can overcome the most steadfast born-again

Christian. We should pray without ceasing for moral health and changed hearts of all of us – unworthy sinners that we are.

However, as Christians, we are called to serve, to protect, and to uplift all of God’s children, not to destroy them by condemning them to a dark future of semi-education and poverty. We should be in the forefront of the struggle to change attitudes towards these young girls whose pregnancies chain them to hopelessness and chronic despair.

Preaching sexual abstinence without teaching them how to accomplish it is a fantasy. Without understanding their own sexual and reproductive health, today’s teenagers wade through dark waters the way my generation did.

At a minimum, our country will be best served when we, the adults, educate ourselves about teenage sexuality and pregnancy. Changed attitudes will enable us to improve access to sexual and reproductive health information for boys and girls, incorporating it into early school education curricula and disseminating it through social and other information media. Educating children about safe sex does not encourage sexual experimentation.

Promotion and provision of effective long-acting reversible contraception should be pursued with the same vigour that helped stem the epidemic of HIV/Aids. It does not encourage promiscuity.

We should provide robust psychological support for pregnant teenagers and help them cope with stigmatization and other attitudes of the uninformed.

All this should be part of a comprehensive nationwide adolescent healthcare program. Pregnant teenagers should be encouraged and facilitated to stay in school until delivery of their babies.

Any school authorities that attempt to suspend or expel a pregnant student should face severe penalty, including loss of employment. During their post-delivery rest and recovery at home, provision of continuing learning opportunities should be explored and implemented where feasible. Upon their early return to school, provision of daycare facilities for the mothers and their babies should be mandated by the government.

Human sexual desire is normal. Except by God’s grace, taming it is a challenge. Those who are unable to control themselves often suffer unintended consequences. Punishing them pushes them deeper into a trap that does not ease their pain or even help the bishop bring them to Christ. Privilege to live in their time. 

Mulera is a medical doctor.

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