How the Church Fuels the Regressive Sexual Culture in Uganda

Early this year, the Ministry of Education and Sports in Uganda approved the National Sexual Education Framework (NSEF) as a policy document. Drafted over two years, it gives guidelines to schools on how to impart content that has sexual information and life skills in pupils of various age brackets. But Ugandan Catholic bishops have said that new sex-education program will be rejected by Christian schools unless considerable revisions are made. In the last plenary assembly of the Catholic Bishops of Uganda held early this month in Nsambya, the clergy said that despite contributions made by their team of experts in developing the policy, in the final edition of the document, their views were “substantially ignored”.

The first mistake, however, was the inclusion of religion in the decision making process.  The state’s obligation to ensure the protection of human rights, in this case by teaching about sex, should be objective and informative rather than judgemental, which is likely with the involvement of religious institutions.

According to 2014 Census data, Roman Catholics constitute the largest religious denomination in Uganda, with nearly 40 percent of the population identifying as Catholic. Another 32 percent are Anglican, while Muslims make up about 14 percent of the population. With such a huge part of the population of Christian denomination, it is likely that the majority of those employed by the state will still be unable to relay sensitive religious information without wrapping religiously-influenced prejudice into sex education delivered to children.

Religion has its place, and it is not to enforce what is morally upstanding to be taught. It is to let each person decide from what is taught—even those who are born into, or affiliated with certain religions. It is to let each person make cases and arguments, and later, if they choose, imbibe faith and beliefs as to why certain things may be so.

Any sex education received with influence from a religious point of view will likely be one defined as none other than an education in the virtue of chastity. This means that the various dimensions of sexuality, LGBTQ+ issues, contraception and reproductive rights may not be taught. And young people will be told to abstain rather than made to understand desire, consent and other such important subjects.

The Catholic church states that contraception is wrong because it’s a deliberate violation of the design of God. There is the notion that the purpose of sex is procreation and that the pleasure sexual intercourse provides is just an additional blessing from God. This sets the sights of any sex-related topic on marriage which is not the reality, and will not be for as long as humans are capable of choice.

The Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016 reported that almost a fifth (19%) of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth, another 5% were pregnant with their first child, and around 25% of those who drop out of school are pregnant teenagers. The country also has one of the highest fertility rates – women give birth to an average of 5.6 children – compared with 4.8 in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. This is attributed to low use of contraceptives and early marriage which, according to the ICRW, is a result of lack of sex education and access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.

The Catholic Bishops claim that the new program ignores “the vital role of the family, especially in the early ages” and that it exposes children ages 3-5 years to “content and life skills which are not appropriate for their age”, even when sexual abuse knows no age appropriateness. Furthermore, in confirmation of the chastity biased sex-ed, which they will be probably propagating, the bishops said, the information and life skills provided for upper level students are “open to interpretation and practices which may [be] contrary to moral Christian values.”

In the last three years, sex education has been a source of controversy following the discovery of sexual reproductive health books in about 100 schools that are said to have included sexual orientation and a non-negative portrayal of masturbation. The idea that sexual activities such as masturbation, homosexuality and subjects on abortion rights would be taught in a way that will not be condemned or said to be abhorrent is a scary thought for the religious. And yet, that is exactly was is needed to foster understanding, even if not agreement, on issues that remain at the forefront of society today.

The idea that the position of the church should be taken into consideration of a topic like sex education is rooted in control. The effects of this can be seen in a country like Nigeria where the marriage of child brides is seen not as a human rights issue but a part of religion, and in many parts of Africa where the refusal to provide safe abortions due to religious views have resulted in high rates of abortion despite its illegality in most states.

The Catholic Church slamming the government’s National Sexuality Education policy and saying they will not allow it to be “introduced nor taught” in their Church-founded schools should be seen as a slight on the children who should grow up to become adults capable of reasoning and dialogue, but instead grow up to be bigots who unleash hell for the next person who does not accept his beliefs. These beliefs often go on to be disguised as state laws and “moral positions” even when they are not.

But even the state is to be scrutinised as it is not immune to its posing of religion as law. Uganda’s anti-gay laws have seen its reoccurence on tabloid pages. This, in addition to the rampant kidnappings and violence against women that have had even police officers campaigning and petitioned because of it.

Ironically, despite the threat of death sentences, Uganda has proportionately as many homosexuals as other countries according to a questionnaire of nearly 3,000 anonymous university students in southwest Uganda, recently published in the journal PLoS One. And regardless of what Education minister Janet Museveni stated at the launch of the policy in March, it does not arise from “unregulated sexuality education initiatives exposing schools as recruitment grounds for homosexuality and other perversions”.

It is the repression of an encompassing sexual education, which cultivates ignorance, fear and ultimately hate towards the idea of sex and all it entails. A teacher for example, preaching to his students that pedophilia is a grave sin only done by perverts and punishable by hellfire (which may very well be so) will not achieve the desired response as opposed to one who breaks down the rules of consent. Where the former introduces fear as a means to maintain control and dissociation of humanity from the perpetrators, the other encourages the children to think and question their actions and the actions of those around them in a way that protects each person’s human rights.

According to the Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC)’s website, there are more than 800 Catholic Church-founded schools in the country. The bishops said they are currently waiting for their “experts to give a final evaluation of the document with further suggestions for its amendment by the competent authorities” but should it be unchanged, they will not allow it in Church-founded schools. But even if the policy was passed, there’s no chance they were ever going to implement it.