Windhoek, 5 September: Vivacious and ambitious Ugandan Evelyn Evans Lanyero entered secondary school in the northern part of her country more than 10 years ago. Aged 14, she underwent a forced pregnancy test and is now a strong advocate for ending this practice which is rampant in many African schools. For Lanyero, the practice is discriminatory and the manner in which it is done often undermines the girls' dignity.
She spoke about her ordeal on the sidelines of the 5th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights held in Windhoek, Namibia. The conference, which ran from 19 to 21 September under the theme Sexual health and Rights in Africa: Where are we? drew approximately 500 participants from 60 countries from Africa and beyond.
Lanyero counted herself extremely lucky to be in school at a time when many of her peers were at home or hiding in the bush due to a war that raged between her country's government troops and fugitive Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
"One Monday morning, the senior teacher called me to her office," Lanyero, who is now an adult and works as a behavior change communication practitioner in her country recalled.
"When I arrived in the stern-faced senior teacher's office, she ordered me to take off all of my clothes save for my underwear." Without explanation the senior teacher proceeded to ‘examine' her eyes, her palms and poke her budding breasts and tiny stomach. She ran her hands all over my body tickling me in the process so much that I just started giggling. After a while she asked me to dress up and go back to class.
I asked afterwards and she explained that they were checking for signs of pregnancy. I found that suspicion hilarious.
Lanyero said that during her time as a learner, random ‘tests' for pregnancy on female learners by teachers were very rampant and still persist in some schools in her country. She said these tests are initially physical, but if the suspicion is strong, the girls will undergo urine-based tests. If found pregnant, the girls will be expelled and seldom rejoin school.
Uganda is not the only country in which forced pregnancy tests by teachers are condoned. The New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR) says based on research conducted in Tanzania over the years, about 8 000 girls drop out of school each year due to pregnancy.
Onyema Afulukwe, the legal adviser for Africa at CRR said her organisation is doing some work in Tanzania, which has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world.
"One quarter of girls aged between 15 and 19 are either mothers or have begun child rearing," she said, adding that reasons for falling pregnant include sexual violence in schools and inadequate access to family planning information and services.
Afulukwe said that in response to this problem, many schools in Tanzania have resorted to mandatory or coercive pregnancy tests to identify pregnant girls who are then expelled. The practice apparently has the support of many people who include school administrators and government officials who think it is a disciplinary measure to punish ‘bad' girls.
Afulukwe said this practice raises many human rights-related questions and the fact that pregnant schoolgirls are sent away with no counselling or support makes it distinctly unfair. In addition, the practice is also discriminatory because there is often no effort to identify and bring to book those who impregnate the girls.
"The fact that the girls are expelled perpetrates the stigma for young women who fall pregnant while still in school and in many countries re-entry into school is impossible."
She said expelling pregnant girls violates their rights to health, privacy, education, equality, non-discrimination and dignity.
"Mandatory or coercive pregnancy testing violates the right to health in that there should not be any non-consensual medical treatment or experimentation occurring anywhere. The fact that it is mandatory means that it is done without consent."
Afulukwe said research conducted by CRR revealed that schools in Tanzania do not provide adequate sexuality and reproductive education. They are not addressing the high prevalence of sexual violence in schools and the country generally.
"These are two key reasons why school girls are becoming pregnant even when they do not want to. Instead, the schools have tried to address the problem of high pregnancy rates by further victimising and punishing the girls."
She said although school authorities believe that expelling pregnant learners is a legal requirement, Tanzania does not have a law that backs the practice. Other officials believe that ferreting out and exposing pregnant young girls early prevents them from seeking unsafe abortions, which endanger their lives.
Evans Khemis, a young sexuality educator in Adra, South Sudan says there would be nothing wrong with telling girls that they are pregnant to ensure that they access health services to protect them and their unborn children, after which they go back to school.
To retain more girls in schools, it is imperative for a concerted effort by all stakeholders. There must be open communication around sexuality and reproductive rights in Africa so that both girls and boys can act responsibly. The SADC Gender Protocol 2012 Barometer recommends that schools ensure that girls who become pregnant receive the practical and psychological support they need to return to school and complete their studies.
Moses Magadza is a freelance journalist based in Namibia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.
Files to download: