NGOs turn to courts to unravel Uganda's ban on sexual education

A volunteer delivers a sexual health lesson at a primary schools in the small town of Nakalama in eastern Uganda. Photo by: International Citizen Service / CC BY

A civil society lawsuit seeking to compel the Ugandan government to teach sexual education in schools goes before a Kampala Court this Wednesday. Advocates hope the case, which follows a crackdown on reproductive education, could reopen a vital space for discussion and help clarify schools’ and NGOs’ understandings of what is and isn’t allowed.

The lawsuit calls for the lifting of October’s Gender Ministry ban on comprehensive sexual education, which sparked months of uncertainty over how and if discussions about sexuality — as well as HIV prevention and family planning — are illegal. Aid groups have scrambled to reconfigure their programming, often working under the threat of government shutdown.

The Center for Health Human Rights and Development, a Uganda-based nonprofit, announced in January they were suing the education ministry over its failure to issue a comprehensive sex education policy in schools. They said the ban was a “threat to the social development of the country” and could impact the rate of HIV/AIDS in Uganda, which affects just over 7 percent of people aged between 15 to 49. The lack of CSE also damaged girls’ ability to manage menstruation, often not a priority for parents, CEHURD said.

The legal case now crystallizes a broader debate over how to manage sensitive sexual topics in a country where over half the population is below the age of 18, and HIV-transmission rates are particularly high among adolescent girls.

“It's an absurdity. CSE cannot be banned,” said Joy Asasira, CEHURD’s program manager. “Sexuality is part of the fabric of society, it's part of life.”

Save the Children and the International Planned Parenthood Federation are supporting CEHURD’s legal case. Family Life Network, which supports the ban, has registered as an interested party. Save the Children told Devex it could not comment.

The legal case now crystallizes a broader debate over how to manage sensitive sexual topics in a country where over half the population is below the age of 18, and HIV-transmission rates are particularly high among adolescent girls. Schools are confused over what subjects they can and can’t discuss, said Jackson Chekweko, executive director of Reproductive Health Uganda. They feel “torn between responding to young people versus following the government directive.”

A tussle over values

The trouble began with a book. There was no sex in the pages. But in conservative Uganda, the kisses between Prudence, 14, and her luscious teacher in Love Lessons, were almost certain to cause an upset when the novel made it onto the curriculum at one prestigious private school in Kampala.

Last August officials, acting on orders of the East African country’s Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo, raided Greenhill Academy, attended by 700 pupils aged between 5 and 12, seizing copies of the book. Lokodo also threatened to close the school down over the book. Greenhill declined to comment when reached by Devex.

The same month, Family Life Network, an NGO that promotes “the restoration of family values and morals,” successfully petitioned Parliament to pass a motion banning all forms of CSE. Uganda’s Gender Minister Janat Mukwaya issued a ban on October 28, clarifying that the parliamentary ruling was binding. CSE was prohibited in both school and non-school settings.  

In a statement published in Uganda’s newspapers two months later, Mukwaya said CSE could “poison the minds of our young people” and the ban was “applicable everywhere on the Ugandan soil [in] school or non-school environment” until a new framework was announced. The gender ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Ugandan schools have taught some form of sexual education for decades, but the issue grew more polarized in recent years, as socially conservative religious groups gained political influence.

In 2014, the Family Life Network and the InterReligious Council, both Evangelical groups, campaigned, and successfully won, the signing of a law further criminalizing homosexuality in Uganda, including banning the “promotion of homosexuality” and prescribing life sentences for some same-sex acts. It was struck down by court about six months later, but homosexual acts are still illegal in Uganda under colonial-era laws.

Conservative advocates also painted CSE as being intended to promote immoral or homosexual behavior. One local 2016 news report claimed that 100 schools in Kampala were being “duped into training disguised homosexuality to their teachers and students” through The World Starts With Me, a CSE curriculum developed by Butterfly Works, the World Population Foundation and the SchoolNet Uganda program in 2003.

Aggrey Kibenge, under secretary at the education ministry, conceded that children had a “right to access information and education on any matter” in an interview with Devex. But he said government had a “responsibility to ensure it is not dangerous to their growth and development, it is age-appropriate, it’s not culturally or religiously offensive and promotes positive values within the wider Ugandan society.”

“LGBT [issues], masturbation and the like are practices alien to Ugandan culture and values,” said Kibenge. He added that parents had a “role to play in this kind of education” but said many “lack courage to tell their children what is right.”

Kibenge said details for a new sex education framework had been provided to the attorney general as defense in the court case.

Uncertain boundaries

The CSE ban and pending legal action have left schools, advocates and NGOs in a bind about how to teach a subject many of them argue is vital to adolescents’ futures. Even answering students' questions may be illegal, teachers fear.

The ban is “seriously having a big impact” on the ability to reach adolescents on a range of important issues, Chekweko told Devex. He recalled recent visits to three schools in Busoga, eastern Uganda, where “young people were raising [questions about] relationships, masturbation, homosexuality, but teachers found it difficult to deal with those questions because of restrictions,” he said.

Prior to the ban, Reproductive Health Uganda, an IPPF member working in the country since 1957, carried out sexual and reproductive health and rights programs in about 100 public and private schools across the country. The organization trained “peer educators,” aged between 13 and 18, to talk to students about consent, unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancies, HIV/AIDS and even “abortion challenges.” In a separate legal case, CEHURD and other parties are suing the government over their failure to pass laws that legalize abortion in Uganda.

But for now, RHU and many partner civil society organizations are limiting their services to a narrow range of interventions from Uganda’s Presidential Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to Youth, or PIASCY. Introduced in Uganda by the country’s President Yoweri Museveni in 2001, the program aims to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and has involved training teachers in HIV/AIDS guidance and counseling.

RHU secured permission from the education ministry for its PIASCY programs in February after first presenting the proposals to “a panel of about 50 people, a technical working group from the ministry of education and other key stakeholders from the religious sector and civil society,” said Chekweko. “We asked if we could talk about family planning, STI management, and we secured that approval.”

Hana International School Uganda is taking another approach, its deputy head teacher Sulaiman Ssengonzi told Devex. At a private school with 370 pupils between the ages of 13 to 19, he said Hana was continuing to carry out sex education “in class and outside” despite the ban. Activities, which happen during meetings every two weeks, include teaching students how to use condoms, for example.

Hana also works with Reach a Hand Uganda, a youth driven NGO focusing on sexual reproductive health and rights, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programs. RAHU sends volunteer “peer educators” between the ages of 17-24 about three times a month to carry out counseling sessions with students about sexual relationships, among other topics. After the sessions, the peer educators speak to teachers.

The ban has “significantly affected our interactions with schools,” RAHU communications and advocacy manager Ibrahim Waiswa Batambuze told us. “The process has become very bureaucratic and some schools are hesitant [in] engaging CSOs; however they want to interact with us if we show them letters of recommendation from ministries,” he said.

Hana is one of the schools to continue. “We have not stopped [doing anything], because there's demand for this talk [sex education] by the students,” said Ssengonzi, who called the ban a “mistake” by the government and said it “can’t work.”

“We shall have a catastrophe if there’s no information,” he said.

Legal challenges

“In Uganda religion and morality has become a more acceptable premise in the making of sexual and reproductive health and rights laws and policies than scientific data and evidence.”

— Joy Asasira, CEHURD’s program manager

Court cases are known to drag on in Uganda, and CEHURD said they will fight the ban all the way. CEHURD would like to see the court order the education ministry to make a CSE policy within a month of passing judgement.

Other efforts to reinstate reproductive rights and access are also underway. A bill has recently been introduced in the East African Legislative Assembly seeking to guarantee access to contraceptives and abortions to people aged between 10 and 19 years in east African countries including Uganda.

Some parliamentarians in Uganda have already announced they will oppose the so-called East African Community Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Bill 2017. And Asasira of CEHURD said she anticipates the campaign against sexual and reproductive health issues to continue.  

“We have already started to experience backlash to the EAC bill from religious groups in Uganda, because in Uganda religion and morality has become a more acceptable premise in the making of sexual and reproductive health and rights laws and policies than scientific data and evidence,” she said.

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About the author

  • Amy Fallon

    Amy Fallon is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Uganda. She has also reported from Australia, the U.K. and Asia, writing for a wide range of outlets on a variety of issues including breaking news, and international development, and human rights topics. Amy has also worked for News Deeply, NPR, The Guardian, AFP news agency, IPS, Citiscope, and others.