Gender-Based Violence (GBV) remains a pressing issue in Uganda, posing significant challenges to the well-being and safety of women and girls across the country. While efforts have been made to address this pervasive problem, there are still hurdles to overcome in creating a society free from the shackles of violence and discrimination. National demographic data from 2020 reveal that 5 out every 10 women aged 15-49 suffer physical and/or sexual violence by a partner (Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2021)
The United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Project Office in Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate the global 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence against women and Girls. This represents a crucial global occasion to advocate for an end of violence directed at women and girls, spanning from November 25th, recognized as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, through December 10th, observed as Human Rights Day.
In tandem with the UN (United Nations) Secretary-General's UNiTE by 2030 initiative, the focus of this year's campaign is on investing to prevent violence against women and girls. While the call for global action resonates worldwide, the specific challenges faced in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in schools and higher education institutions, underscore the urgency of addressing this complex issue.
Violence in schools and higher institutions of learning in Sub-Saharan Africa remains a complex phenomenon that highly disrupts learning progress while affecting the general health and well-being of pupils and young people. According to a 2017 UNESCO study, a staggering 246 million school-going children and adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa experience violence annually.
A subsequent report in 2019 highlighted that, 4 out every 10 boys and 5 out of every 10 girls experience bullying within Sub-Saharan African schools. Shockingly, corporal punishment remains prevalent, with long-lasting negative impacts on learners. A Global Initiative report further indicated high prevalence rates of school violence in countries such as Botswana (92%), Gambia (70%), and Uganda (79%).
Beyond schools, social and gender norms continue to contribute to insufficient knowledge about HIV and hinder access to Sexual and Reproductive Health services. While there is a positive trend in the decrease of justifications for wife beating among adolescents, challenges persist, including a high percentage of adolescent girls marrying before 15 years old.
According to a Violence Against Children (VAC) survey report in Uganda of 2018, a high prevalence of violence against children was reported indicating harmful consequences to the survivors. One in every four Ugandan girls aged 13-17 (25%) and one in ten boys (11%) reported violence in the past year. While among the 18–24-year-old Ugandans, one in three girls (35%) and one in six boys reported experiencing sexual violence during their childhood. Friends, romantic partners, neighbors, classmates, and strangers were among the reported perpetrators of sexual violence among adolescents and young people.
Against this background, UNESCO with funding from other partners is implementing the ‘Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future’ (O3) Programme which supports the Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of Health in and the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development to prioritize the creation of safer, healthier and inclusive school environments in which learners and other school stakeholders thrive in pursuit of health and wellbeing to achieve quality Education outcomes.
The programme’s overarching goal is to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), advance gender equality, and enhance education outcomes for adolescents and young people. Through a multi-pronged approach, the programme aims to significantly reduce new HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), early and unintended pregnancies (EUP), and gender-based violence (GBV). The O3 Programme is a 4-year programme implemented across 33 Sub-Saharan Africa; Uganda inclusive. It focuses on learners and students from primary, secondary, higher, and Tertiary education institutions.
The programme also supports UNESCO’s mandate to realize Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) of ensuring quality and inclusive education by 2030, the implementation of the African Continental Strategy on health and wellbeing of adolescents and young people, Uganda’s National Development Plan NDPIII and the Education Sector strategic plan.
Through this programme, UNESCO has supported the 3 ministries to develop key normative guidance around strengthening school health programs and prevention, and response to School violence including Bullying. The programme has also enabled the ministry to conduct key studies and research, whose findings have informed the initiation of strategic interventions aimed at improving the health and well-being of learners. For instance, a baseline assessment conducted in 2022 at higher and Tertiary Education Institutions showed that 72% of students are sexually active while 29.6 % of male students and 25.5% of female students believe in wife beating.
Sexual and gender-based violence among students since their enrollment at university was at 8.2% and this was higher at 10% among female students and 7% among males; with 5.2% of students indicating having ever been forced to have sex against their will during the last 12 months. This percentage was higher among females 9% than their male counterparts 2.6%. 6.2% of the student respondents reported having experienced physical abuse by an intimate partner during the last 12 months was reported to be at 6.2% of students. These findings have been very instrumental in directing current health efforts in higher and tertiary education institutions.
Through this programme, UNESCO has supported the ministries to build the capacity of district leadership, school managers, teachers, Learners, and health workers to prevent, track, record, respond and refer learners who have experienced violence for services in the districts of Soroti, Busia, Luuka, and Butaleja.
At HTEIs (Higher and Tertiary Education Institutions) level, the program has been implemented at three Universities, namely; Makerere University (main and Jinja Campuses); Ndejje University and Kampala International University (Western) since 2022. To date, the universities that did not have existing policies have been supported to recognize the need and initiate the process of developing the Gender and sexual harassment policies while those which have existing policies have been supported to popularize these among the students as well as report cases of violence. The universities actively participate in annual commemorations of the 16 days of activism as part of the process to create safe campus environment free from gender-based violence and sexual harassment.
Activities earmarked ahead of the campaign include School Debates for Higher and tertiary education institutions, sensitization and awareness campaigns, public lectures, and media briefs, among others.
Putting an end to violence against women and girls is a collective responsibility. We urge all stakeholders, spanning communities, religious leaders, parents, educational institutions, and policymakers, to unite in addressing the pressing issue of gender-based violence and sexual harassment among our youth.