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Bold new plan for gender equality

Resentful of the man who has made her HIV-positive, a teenage girl sets out to infect as many males in the village as possible. Realising what she has done, a baying mob tries to lynch her, but she runs away. When her grandmother discovers the truth, and realises the girl will never marry, she sobs uncontrollably. Without a man to support her, how will the girl survive? As if in answer, a man offers her money for sex. The tension is palpable.

Applause slices through the silence, bringing relief as the end-of-term play at Masindi secondary school (Masesco) in west Uganda climaxes in the sizzling afternoon heat. It may only be drama but it confronts the very real threats that Masesco’s 891 pupils face, with the local HIV rate at 7%. It also reinforces a negative stereotype of girls, which is unhelpful when boys outnumber girls two to one in Masesco.

Patriarchal notions die hard in Uganda, even though it is one of the countries leading the advance of women’s rights in Africa. Since President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement took power in 1986, many women have gained posts in the government, the judiciary and NGOs. These bodies had an influence on the 1995 Constitution, ensuring that policies promoted the rights of girls and women.

Despite these steps to bridge the gender gap, only a quarter of parliamentary seats are held by women. Some believe Museveni’s pro-women stance has been adopted largely to curry favour with female voters for next year’s poll.

Nevertheless, Uganda is on track to meet the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals for education. For example, free primary education for all was introduced in 1997, giving girls and boys an equal chance to access primary school. Now almost 90% of school-age children are enrolled in primary schools. In 2000, the government launched a national strategy for girls’ education to address barriers that prevent girls from attending school.

Gender equality in primary school enrolment in Uganda has almost been achieved. There has also been increasing gender parity in secondary schools, but this still poses a challenge. Only 25% of girls aged 15 to 19 receive some secondary education and fewer go to university.

Speaking at the World Education Forum in Senegal, in 2000, Dr Nafis Sadik, of the UN’s Population Fund, said: ”In many societies, all the benefits for girls from education – such as knowing their rights to protection against violence, protection against diseases and unwanted pregnancy, and economic empowerment – are precisely the reason why these countries, consciously or subconsciously, have denied girls educational opportunities.”

Many women know they will make a rod for their own backs if they are too successful. As one woman told World Bank researchers: ”At times, we women are a problem because after our husbands have supported us to do business, when we become successful, we end up despising them.”

Indeed, drop-out rates are the biggest threat to universal primary education. A third of pupils, of both sexes, drop out during the reception stage and another third leave during the transition from the penultimate year to Primary 7 (aged about 11). The ministry of education and sport says a lack of interest and the cost of school accessories are the main causes.

The result is a low completion rate. Of those who started Primary 1 in 1997, 22% reached Primary 7 by 2003.

The problem lies with the massive increase in school-going children, which has caused teacher-pupil ratios to soar and the quality of education to suffer, says Cathy Watson, of the NGO Straight Talk Foundation. ”Only a tiny percentage of kids get a Grade 1 pass in their primary leaving exams, so parents don’t see the benefits of education and think it’s just not worth it.” This is why, she says, the government has decided to drop half the primary curriculum and focus on numeracy, literacy and life skills, so children really can read and write when they leave primary school.

It is hoped that the cancellation of Uganda’s $4,9-billion (about R31,36-billion) foreign debt will release more money for much-needed educational resources.

Watson, who was behind the Ugandan government’s strategy for spreading the message about Aids to primary schools, continues: ”We are not getting enough girls going into secondary education and once they are out of primary school, there’s little for them to do but get pregnant and get married.”

She is drafting a post-primary version of the strategy, to be implemented next year. It will contain teaching materials about safe sex, condom use, rape and marriage. The aim is to equip girls with knowledge to stay safe from sexual predators, and open their eyes to the benefits of education.

In Uganda, young people who have been to secondary school are four times less likely to become HIV-positive. Says Watson: ”Unless we keep girls in secondary school, we are not going to see a big change in reproductive health behaviours.”

But in a country that has three million children who have been orphaned as a result of Aids, education is still a luxury. Despite all the initiatives in education, the average age of school enrolment is likely to rise as children in HIV-affected households face the death of one or both breadwinners.

So, although educational opportunities have empowered many Ugandan women, barriers to their advancement still exist. At Masesco, for example, the end-of-term play is not the only drama taking place. Last term, headmistress Aminah Mukasa abolished the posts of head girl and head boy, pitting girls against boys for the head-prefect role for the first time. With a boy-girl ratio of more than 2:1, the odds are stacked against the sole female candidate. The girls struggle to make their views heard above the male pupils who quote biblical references such as Adam’s rib creating Eve to justify their superiority.

Even though girls are likely to hold the subordinate post of assistant head prefect for several years, the women view the change as a necessary step towards equality. ”Girls in Africa have been kept in an inferior position. They should have the chance to compete against boys so they can also be leaders,” says maths teacher Nyangoma Ziyasa.

”It instils into students, especially girls, the belief that boys and girls are at an equal footing in…politics and any other leadership position,” agrees Kyotasobora Phinehas, from ActionAid. ”The existence of a head girl and head boy at the same time might mislead the learners that girls cannot favourably compete with boys, beat them and ably manage any given students’ associations.”

In Uganda, where the women’s movement is still relatively young, most women believe they must beat a man to prove they are his equal, not stand by his side.

In the build-up to the presidential election next year, role models such as former MP Winnie Byanyima, who is considering running against Museveni (her former boyfriend), will undoubtedly inspire others to assume leadership roles.

Take 37-year-old Mukasa, for example, one of the youngest female head teachers in the country. She is proud of her achievement but will not be satisfied until she becomes a university vice-chancellor. ”I like Museveni because he has empowered women,” she says. ”Women are slowly but surely coming up, and we now see men doing domestic chores such as cleaning.” – Guardian Newspapers 2005

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