A new mother to a six-week old baby girl, carrying her did not get in the way of her achievement. Nampumuza got pregnant in her final year at university, but continued with her education to graduate with a first class degree. Her situation would have raised eyebrows at the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU).
Just last week, seven pregnant students here were expelled and will try their luck at a different university. One of these girls, whom we shall call Hadijah, says she has no regrets about her condition. “The blame was all mine; the university has its regulations and we broke them so we got what we deserved,” she says from behind her over-sized Hijab.
Asked if she would have wished for better, Hadijah says she would have liked to see the university support students in her situation, providing counselors and access to a clinic.
“Though I have been a good student, once you lose their trust they only give you a letter and advise on where to go, but you can’t return to IUIU,” Hadijah said.
A lecturer at the university, Abdulhamid Mpoza agrees. “Usually our regulations are governed by the teachings of the Koran so pregnancy outside marriage is not tolerated, yet elsewhere it would be a cup of tea.”
Mpoza explains that even the male student responsible for such a situation would be expelled. Only married students are exempted from punishment. However, in Hadijah’s case, her boyfriend was not punished; he was not identified. Hadijah, who dropped out of IUIU in the final year of her Bachelor of Education programme, is now picking up the straws at Kampala University.
She says she is also unlikely to get back with her boyfriend who is responsible for the pregnancy.
“I don’t want to talk about him and please understand this, but he is not aware of what happened to me after I left IUIU. We are living different lives and everything to do with me and my baby is my concern alone. It is my life for now,” she emphasizes.
Getting pregnant while in school or at university can be a challenge for those who have gone through the experience. And most Ugandan universities are still uncomfortable about how to handle the situation. Public universities take the general rule of allowing the student to continue studies as long as they are physically able. However, the private universities have more heightened rules in this area.
At Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi, pregnant students are expected to be married, but those that are not are required to notify administration immediately to benefit from their counseling services.
However, at Uganda Christian University in Mukono, an unmarried pregnant student may find herself before a disciplinary committee. There have been no cases of expulsions, but unmarried pregnant students are generally forced to take a ‘dead’ year. The male student responsible for the pregnancy also faces the same punishment.
The other private universities seem to take a cue from the public institutions, offering counseling and the minimum clinical care. Susan, who now works in government, says she became pregnant with her first baby while in her last year at Makerere University. “At the time I hoped that I would hook up with my boyfriend permanently and we’d soon get married but it was not to be as we soon separated,” she says.
All she remembers was the feeling of shame that suddenly enveloped her when she realised that she was pregnant.
“I was sick a lot of the time and didn’t have any answers for my inquisitive roommate, who I was initially reluctant to tell,” she recalls.
“Then word got out and many of my friends in the hostel suspected the worst. But what hurt most was the whispers behind my back as it slowly became evident to them,” she adds.
Susan says she can still recall the silent stares as she trudged to class, week after week, pretending not to be pregnant. “I knew it would soon be obvious, but everyone suddenly seemed concerned.”
“I was off for three weeks due to sickness. And my friends really worried about what I was missing. They also couldn’t tell the lecturer what was going on when I missed an assignment,” she says.
At four months, telling the lecturers was even harder but inevitable, but once she had done it, the situation eased until her health problems cropped up again.
“I found it very hard because I was so tired all the time. I actually fell asleep in a lecture once. I wondered what to do to regain my energy soon, since I had a lot of work to do,” she said.
Thankfully she eventually gave birth at a friend’s place, long after her final exams, which she nearly failed due to the exhaustion. Her boyfriend moved in with a friend of hers a year later. Today she is a single mother of two and advises university female students to wait until their studies are complete before getting pregnant. “Use the pill or whatever, but just don’t get pregnant.”
Hadijah agrees. She says she is in a delicate position and would not advise any student at IUIU to follow her example.
“I would advise her to stick to the regulations or be ready for the consequences, if she is ever caught breaking the rules,” she says.
Catherine Kanabahita, who heads the gender mainstreaming division at Makerere University, believes universities should not take punitive action against students who become pregnant.
“What they need is to offer support mechanisms to prevent pregnancy through counseling and family planning methods,” she says.
However, she acknowledges that in IUIU’s case, there is little to do since the university informs students in advance that pregnancy outside marriage is not allowed. But she warns that it’s time to look at things differently since there may be negative consequences.
“With all due respect they have their right to impose regulations but they need to realise that with the female student already in a disadvantaged position, especially if it is an unwanted pregnancy, she may never get another chance at a university education. So who is the beneficiary?”
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