Bishop’s ban on pregnant learners triggers stormy debate
Bishop James Ssebaggala of Mukono Diocese has attracted ire from different corners of Uganda’s society for banning the re-admission of pregnant learners in church-founded schools in his diocese.
Bishop Ssebaggala was quoted as having said that: “Pregnant and Breastfeeding mothers should not come to our schools.
Let them sort their issues at home. We cannot allow such immoral behaviour.”
But the Bishop is not the only advocate of this policy of isolation.
Mityana district woman MP Joyce Baagala Ntwatwa expressed similar sentiments when she said that pregnant mothers should be separated from other children for purposes of protecting them against being bullied by their co-learners.
Others also argue that accepting pregnant learners to mix with other children, would send a bad example to the rest of the learners that one can engage in sex, and be allowed back in school.
In one radio call-in show on the same subject, a caller pleaded with the authorities to stop transforming schools into labour wards.
But those opposed to the Bishop’s stance say his words are not only incompatible with biblical teachings of forgiveness, inclusiveness and accommodation of sinners, they are blind to the realities and effects of the COVID-19 environment such as high numbers of girls being impregnated by relatives.
Edward Tujunirwe, working with the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology (UNCST), said: “The Bishop gets it dead wrong in 2022. The Jesus that he allegedly serves, did not only invite sinners to places of worship, but he also welcomed, counseled, prayed for, fed everybody… healed thousands and resurrected the dead…two simple questions for the Bishop: What programs does his diocese have to assist young girls and boys who find themselves entangled in early sexual relationships (including forced ones)??? Does his diocese accept pregnant unmarried girls in the church???”
Tujunirwe adds: “The statement makes me doubt the man of God’s interpretation of the issues. For example, the Church of Uganda has never accepted polygamy but the polygamous man and his women are never denied access to church services including attending prayers, baptising and confirmation of children arising out of polygamous or even in married relationships. Let the Bishop cite any biblical quote that informs his reasoning. The church accepts money from the corrupt and thieves….why wouldn’t it allow providing education to the pregnant and breastfeeding girls/mothers?”
The Women’s Pro Bono Initiative, a group of remake lawyers that give free legal advice and support to dis-empowered women, has gone a step further when it threatened legal action against the Bishop Ssebaggala.
In their Jan. 10 letter to the bishop, the Ntinda-based NGO demanded that the bishop must instruct the schools under the care of Mukono diocese to put in place measures that protect pregnant and breastfeeding learners to fully participate in all activities of the school.
Rev. Amos Kasibante, argued that Bishop Ssebaggala’s stance is too simplistic and ignores realities of the COVID-19 lockdown which have perpetuated inequality in Uganda.
“Just like in other countries, including the developed countries, the Coronavirus has exposed the wide socio-economic inequalities that exist within and between countries. This is not just a social or economic problem. It is a moral problem. It’s a question of justice.
“The large number of girls who got pregnant is only one of the effects of lockdown or more accurately the effects of government’s handling of the virus. Other problems include the collapse of or substantial damage to school buildings and the inability of parents who were made redundant to pay school fees.
“Consequently, the stock of schools is significantly reduced, as hundreds of private schools might never open again. Many government schools in the country were already in a bad way or what might be called substandard. Others were not fit for purpose. Coronavirus and the government’s handling have made a bad situation worse.”
Others have argued that blocking possibly thousands of girl children from school would deal a deathly blow to so many girls, who would otherwise make better and more responsible citizens, especially after getting a second chance in life.
Supporters of pregnant girls continuing with school argue that many tend to work harder after realising their mistakes.
Fortunately perhaps, the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda Dr. Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu said the as the Church, they will support the government policy to allow pregnant girls and breast-feeding mothers to return to school.
He however expressed concern that the government and other agencies that are promoting the continued learning for child-mothers, have not put in place the social and psychological environment that allows the learners and teachers to embrace the mothers from being ostracized or stigmatized.
In the final analysis, the Bishop’s stance and many others opposed to pregnancy among minors reflects conservative attitudes of Ugandans that perhaps need to change.
Some have argued that instead of avoiding a discussion about sex with children, there is need to tackle society attitudes that regard sex as a sin in order to be able to address its negative consequences among children – including unwanted pregnancies and related health effects such as high levels of infant mortality.
But like all cultural issues, no one can expect to witness such a change of attitude on such touchy subjects especially in deeply conservative and religious communities as Uganda’s to happen anytime soon.