'Carpet Grades' Are Target of Ugandan Bias Policy

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Female students in Uganda have long endured demands for sex in exchange for grades from university lecturers. First in a series on higher education in Africa.

Maria Gorette Karuhanga

KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)--The miniskirts worn by undergraduates at Makerere University have been blamed for everything from AIDS to the disintegration of the African family.

That's one reason why eyebrows were raised when a handful of activists suggested that young female college students were more often victims, thanks to their sexuality, than the other way around.

The practice of male lecturers at Makerere demanding sex from female students in exchange for diplomas and "carpet" grades--indicating where the transaction takes place--is well known. But recently, some administrators and women's advocates at the university quietly drafted a sexual harassment policy to address the problem. If it is approved--which could happen as soon as May--it would be among the first of its kind in an African institution of higher learning.

"This is an issue that we have just started talking about in Uganda," said Maria Gorette Karuhanga, a human rights lawyer who helped draft the policy. "In the absence of any document--any legal policy--people have no basis to challenge anything. This is also a challenge to the administration to address this problem, which is tarnishing the image of the university."

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Makerere, once known as the Harvard of Africa, is the alma mater of generations of prominent names from around the continent. But the university fell into disrepair during the 1970s, when dictator Idi Amin took power in Uganda, and it has yet to regain its stature. While some programs are still prestigious, Makerere undergraduates must endure overcrowded classes and second-rate facilities. Lost exams and delayed diplomas are common.

Education Financed With Sugar

On a recent afternoon, the rolling, eucalyptus-dotted hills of the Makerere campus were crowded with students rushing to class. On the walls of the canteen, where some sat munching french fries, was a sign posted by an AIDS prevention group admonishing, "Say No to Sugar Daddies," a reference to another well-known practice of young female students taking older, richer boyfriends to pay for tuition, books and mobile phones.

In 2004, an affirmative action program for women at the university won funding to conduct a survey to gather information on a number of issues, including sexual harassment. It concluded that while female students at Makerere were most often the victims of sexual harassment, female lecturers, secretaries and even maids employed by the college were also frequently denied promotions, pay and decent treatment if they refused to have sex with their male superiors. But those who experience sexual harassment almost always remain silent, it concluded, because they fear retribution or assume that speaking out is futile.

In a local newspaper story published last year, female students--who make up about 42 percent of the student body--complained of being routinely propositioned by lecturers during office hours. One said her teacher demanded that she accompany him to a Lake Victoria beach to discuss her grade. Dormitory residents said that custodians are known to withhold beds if girls don't give them sex. One woman said an admissions officer would not allow her

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