On 11th May 2018, Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) practitioners from academia, the Government, the private sector, young people made their way to Kampala Parents School for the launch of the National Sexuality Education Framework. This framework came as result of the ban of comprehesnive sexaulity education by Parliament of Uganda in August 2016 given lack of agreement on values, practices and behaviours that are being promoted by the players in sexuality education. The parliaments motivation came from the discovery of sexual reproductive health books in 100 schools that included sexual orientation and a non-negative portrayal of masturbation. Their argument was that “sexuality education was leading to decline in children’s moral values” Parliament went ahead to give key recommendations and among these was that the Ministry of Education comes up with framework to facilitate sexuality education schools.
In Ugandan Context Values are beliefs about what is right and wrong and what is important in life and these have been categorised in cultural, religious and ethical values that enhance family life, sexual and reproductive health specific to the Uganda context.
With this recommendation the Ministry of Education and Sports kicked off a comprehensive process of developing the National Sexuality Education Framework. This included consultations with young people, civil society organizations, Government agencies, religious leaders from all major faiths, academia and the ‘Council of Presidents’ among other relevant stakeholders. The First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports, Honorable Janet Kataaha Museveni championed this process which saw the launch happen in May, almost 2 years since the ban.
The National Sexuality Education Framework defines sexuality education as a lifelong process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about vital issues such as sexual development, reproductive health, interpersonal relationships, affection, intimacy, body image, and gender roles. It addresses the socio-cultural, biological, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality by providing information; exploring feelings, values, and attitudes; and developing communication skills, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills in accordance with the laws and policies of Uganda. It goes ahead to define appropriateness as mostly found to be fitting, suitable or compatible.
During the launch, the Minister stated, “We owe our children a holistic education that goes beyond academics, but empowers them with life skills, values and builds character.” – UNFPA Uganda. What does this mean? From the minister’s remarks, it is important to note that sexuality education surpasses textbook knowledge, but encompasses growth and development and transition from puberty into adulthood. It also gives adolescents guidance and knowledge to safeguard the inevitable: growing up and starting relationships. It does not cause earlier or riskier sexual activity. In fact, sexuality education reduces rates of risky behavior by, for example, encouraging adolescents to use condoms and contraception and decreasing misinformation spread by peers, sexuality education is also important for addressing education opportunities and gender equality. Lack of sexuality education can lead to increases in unplanned pregnancies and dropout rates of young and expectant mothers.
Additionally, sexuality education programs are cost-effective and can improve spending on sexual and reproductive health. Countries and hospitals save money when rates of STIs, HIV infections and unintended pregnancies are reduced.
Minimal information on the HIV statistics for school going young people (10 to 24 years) at all levels of education including primary, secondary and tertiary is provided by the Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of Health or the Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC). Available information from the Uganda AIDS Commission states that there are about 1.2 million Ugandans living with HIV with up to 83,000 having contracted HIV in 2016 (227 infections per day / 9.4 infections per hour), majority of which are among young people especially girls and 3,100 new HIV infections among children below 15 years. In 2015, it was estimated that 567 young people aged between 15-24 years get infected with HIV every week and of these 363 are girls while 28,000 people died of HIV related illness in the same year (77 deaths per day). Young people, especially young women and girls were disproportionately affected because of vulnerabilities created by unequal cultural, social and economic status and unaccommodating attitudes towards sex outside of marriage coupled with the restricted social autonomy of women and young girls leading to reduced ability to access sexual health and HIV services.
In light of these looming numbers, what does it mean to us as a nation? Most of the new infections are due to unsafe sexual behavior like unprotected sex, having multiple sexual partners, early sexual debut, sexual violence, cross generational sex, something for something love among others. Evidence shows that these contribute to the increased new HIV infections among young people which is aggravated by the limited access to accurate information on prevention of HIV, different myths and misconceptions around HIV and the perception of different people on practising safer sex behaviors. To try to curb this, several campaigns and strategies have run to increase awareness and promote information and services seeking behaviors among young people in and out school.
Important to note is the Presidential Initiative on the AIDS Strategy to Youth (PIASCY) launched in 2001. This was designed to prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS and to mitigate its impact on primary and post-primary education institutions in Uganda. The strategy yielded significant results which included 13,000 pre-trained and in-service teachers trained in HIV/AIDS guidance and counseling, tutors in 45 teacher training colleges exposed to programmes on HIV/AIDS Education and 3,234 model schools set up as epicentres of good practices in HIV/AIDS education.
As implementation of the PIASCY program in schools took off, a need to address HIV as a public health issue arose. This saw different CSOs start to roll out sexuality education in schools. It was critical that those who delivered sexuality education are adequately qualified, trained and supported. The development of the National Sexuality Education Framework intended to provide a benchmark for sexuality education including HIV prevention and positive living, came in handy and was was welcomed by open hands from sexuality education implementing partners.
Barely 4 months after the launch of the framework, an article ran in The Daily Monitor of June 25th 2018 intimated that the Catholic church leadership disapproved and slammed the national sexuality education framework stating their refusal to have it introduced or taught in their church founded schools.This resolution was made during a four day plenary under the Uganda Episcopal conference. 6 days later in the New Vision of 1st July 2018, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education wrote a circular to all partners implementing sexuality education interventions in the education sector not to start teaching of sexuality education until the ministry instructs otherwise.
These actions directly affect HIV inventions in schools thus increasing stigma and discrimination among Young People Living with HIV. There is need to factor in the school environment and how it can help to normalize understanding on sexuality, both among young people and in the wider community. Schools are also important spaces for governments to deliver programmes that reach young people from diverse backgrounds. If the status quo remains the same, it’s likely we’ll continue to see the trend of growing HIV infection among young people.