KAMPALA, UGANDA – “What is the government thinking?” That was mother-of-two Rose Nampijja’s response when she heard of plans to teach sexuality education to schoolchildren from the age of 3.
“It would be culturally wrong for a teacher, especially a male teacher, to tell my 3-year-old daughter, ‘If someone touches you down there, you should report or stop them,’” she says. “Three years old is too young for such an education.”
In her Ganda culture, she says, sexuality education is passed down to children by uncles, paternal aunts and sometimes parents, but never anyone outside the family, and never at such a young age.
Nampijja is one of many Ugandans who oppose the introduction of the country’s first sexuality education program for schoolchildren.
The curriculum was first proposed in 2018, but it has yet to be put into effect due to community outcry. Meanwhile, police are reporting a rise in cases of sexual abuse of minors in the country, and some civil society groups say the delay in implementing a comprehensive sexuality education program is partly to blame.
Uganda’s most recent crime report indicated an increase in defilement cases from 14,985 in 2017 to 15,366 in 2018. Defilement cases were the second-leading crime in the country that year.
Under the Uganda Penal Code, the crime of defilement refers specifically to the sexual abuse of girls younger than 18. There is no available data for similar crimes against men and boys.
Fred Enanga, a national spokesperson for the police, says that in December 2019, four defilement cases of girls between ages 3 and 6 were reported in just five days.
“Most of the people who defile children are known to them. They can be relatives or close friends to the family of the child,” Enanga says.
Sexuality education was banned in Uganda in 2016. The 2018 framework was designed to lift that ban and introduce the topic to schoolchildren for the first time.
Under the curriculum, known as the National Sexuality Education Framework, children ages 3 to 5 learn about their “private parts,” and that there are inappropriate forms of touching that they can refuse.
At ages 6 to 9, the framework suggests teaching children to “understand the forms of unacceptable body-touch,” and that their bodies will change during puberty. It is also recommended that at this age they be taught about abstinence, pornography and the “dangers it brings,” as well as be given information about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
From age 10 onward, children are given more detailed information about the function of reproductive organs, menstruation, pregnancy, marriage and family.
Henry Semakula, deputy head of the health and HIV unit in the Ministry of Education, says the framework is designed to empower children with age-appropriate information in the hope of reducing cases of sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.
“There is a lot of misinformation or lack of information about sexuality education,” he says. “With the framework in place, we hope teachers will get the right materials instead of using scanty sources without guidance for how and when to disperse this information to children.”
When the government first proposed the framework, Semakula says, officials hoped it would be used in schools that same year.
“We had done consultations with all stakeholders, including churches and other religious leaders, parents and cultural leaders, and we thought we were ready to launch,” he says. But the ministry faced resistance from church leaders who objected to the young starting age and the inclusion of the word “sexuality” in the framework’s name.
The Catholic Church owns 24% of schools in Uganda, according to data from 2015, and the curriculum cannot be fully implemented without its assent. Its representatives are firmly opposed to the framework in its current form.
“When children as young as 3 are introduced to new information, they will want to imitate what they see or have heard, and are most likely to act on the information provided, which can spur immoral behavior, like engaging in sex acts,” says Father Joseph Mukasa Nkeera, a spokesperson for the Kampala archdiocese of the Catholic Church. “Yet sex is sacred.”
The ministry is now embarking on a whole new round of consultations with religious leaders and other stakeholders to try to bridge the gap, Semakula says. He doesn’t know when the program will be introduced.
Annah Kukundakwe, from the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development, a Ugandan think tank, says the delay is putting children in danger by leaving them unaware of their rights.
“The more the Ministry of Education delays to incorporate the framework, the more consequences we see, like teenage pregnancies, child marriages [and] cases of defilement,” she says.
Kukundakwe believes that sexuality education should start as early as possible.
“Three years old is old enough,” she says. “We know of an 8-year-old who has become pregnant and a 5-year-old who has contracted an STD because she has been involved in sexual acts.”
And not all parents are as opposed as Nampijja to the idea of their children learning about sex from a young age.
Naboth Mugenyi, a father of three, says he supports the framework.
He says parents can be reluctant, busy or simply unaware of the importance of talking to their children about sex.
“If the government is taking the responsibility of coming up with guidelines that provide age-appropriate information, where my 5-year-old daughter would be empowered to understand and report inappropriate body touching and improve her self-esteem, then I don’t see anything wrong with sexuality education being introduced to young children,” he says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.