Moral arguments, concerned with what is good and evil abound in our society. They are taught in churches, schools and enforced in homes.
However, these moral norms, set by society and expected to be followed to the letter, often end up hurting the most vulnerable in society. Maria Achieng, a student of Uganda Christian University Mukono (UCU) found herself outside the realm of what is considered moral.
Like any other fresher, Achieng was excited and eager to pursue her dream of becoming a fine artist. In her third year however, she found out that she was pregnant. Achieng had seen the fate that had befallen her other colleagues at this Christian-based university who were in the same predicament.
In line with the university’s rules and regulations, the students were asked to take a dead year to have the baby and return “pure”. This she could not afford since her mother, who struggled with her school fees, was looking forward to her finishing school and helping her siblings.
“I had no choice. I had to have an abortion,” recalls Achieng.
“I am a Christian and I would have liked to keep the baby. But I was so close to the finish line, I could not afford to stop.”
The Uganda Christian University Code of Conduct Hand Book provides that unmarried women who become pregnant while students shall be guilty of an offence. The same applies to unmarried men who commit the offence of impregnating a woman with whom they have no marital relationship.
While minister of Education and Sports Namirembe Bitamazire has, on several occasions, reiterated the stand that girls who get pregnant while in school should not be expelled, whether it happens at primary, secondary or university level, many institutions still maintain that these girls are a ‘bad apple’ that will spoil the rest.
The issue of girls being expelled from university particularly raises questions since many assume that they are adults who have the wherewithal to make their own decisions. In the words of Santa Ogwetta of Forum for African Women Educationists, this includes the decision whether to have a girlfriend or boyfriend, whether to be married and indeed whether to become a parent.
Rev. Dr. Medard Rugyendo, chaplain and dean of Faculty of Education at UCU explains that the university, by asking girls to take a dead year, aims at promoting morals in an academic environment. He is proud of these standards and says the university is one with a difference where students are taught to live exemplary lives as Christians.
UCU is not the only university that has a strict morally oriented policy against unmarried girls who get pregnant. Others like Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) prescribe that, in line with the teachings of the Koran, a girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock commits a sin and must be excluded.
Unlike Uganda Christian University, where the student is asked to take on the apparently lesser punishment of a dead year, at IUIU, they are expelled from school.
Asked to reconcile the university regulations with the Ugandan Law, Rugyendo asserts that the university is a private institution and chooses how it should be run, unlike government institutions.
He points out that the rules and regulations are clear and students subscribe to these when joining the university. This reasoning is in line with those who advocate for academic freedoms and the idea that private institutions should be allowed to determine who they would or would not like to admit, and indeed who they should retain in school.
Human rights violation?
But these freedoms, in relation to girls who get pregnant at religious based institutions, are in contrast to the women’s rights to education, privacy and reproductive health, rights guaranteed under the Constitution of Uganda 1995 and under the international human rights instruments Uganda is party to.
This is because while the Constitution guarantees the right to practice whatever religion or culture of one’s choice, it explicitly prohibits any culture or practice that discriminates against women. Elizabeth Naiga, a lawyer in Kampala, rebuts the argument that a student contracts to follow these school rules, saying these are standard contracts, in which the student does not have a real say.
Besides, she continues, one cannot contract outside of the law; the law clearly prohibits such unfair exclusion from accessing education. Joseph Luswata, a lawyer with Sebalu Lule Advocates and Legal Consultants, says that dismissal of a female from work for pregnancy and reasons related to pregnancy is unlawful under the Employment Act 2006.
He opines that being unmarried would fall under the ambit of reasons related to pregnancy, and it would be unquestionably unlawful to ask an employee to leave on such grounds.
In the feminist point of view, expelling females for being pregnant is a punishment for having the ability to nurture and bring forth life. Besides, like Ogwetta puts it, excluding these students from school could promote a greater evil. She, for example, may choose to abort, which in religious terms is seen on the same plane as murder.
Questions are also raised about the livelihood of the girl, who now has an extra mouth to feed. The fact that the girl often faces the consequences on her own and authorities prefer not to question who the father is, and hold him accountable, makes the scenario seem like the epitome of discrimination on the basis of sex.
In such scenarios, in which morality is the overriding factor, the girl’s life is of no interest. As Rugyendo notes, whether she decides to have an abortion or not and whether she decides to involve the father or not, is her business.
But perhaps it’s Naiga who succinctly sums up the issue: morality’s goal posts shift to suit the whims of those in power.