'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.

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to enroll in a master's program because she refused his advances.


Economics are, of course, a major factor in the university social climate, says Karuhanga, in which sex is often seen as the only ticket to success a young woman has. Women come from all over Uganda to attend Makerere, where the great majority of teachers, administrators and other staff members are men. Many female students are sent by rural families who barely make enough to feed themselves. Promised scholarship money often doesn't materialize. Extended families who are struggling to provide for their own children often can't provide enough.

Sengas Sell Advice to Girls

Karuhanga also attributes the problem to Uganda's deeply patriarchal culture, which still teaches that men are superior and allowed to demand what they want. In the tradition of the Baganda, Uganda's largest tribe, young girls learn about sex from sengas, or aunts. Today, professional sengas go door to door in the dormitories at Makerere, selling advice, love potions and charms. They also teach that a proper wife is submissive to her husband. Tradition discourages women from speaking out against ill treatment by men.

Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

One of the few who did was a Makerere graduate who later took a job working as an administrator in the university's school of fine arts. She had kept silent, she told Karuhanga, when, as a student, she was given a mediocre grade by a teacher whose invitations she had refused. Several years later, by now a Makerere employee, she was suspended for insubordination when she rebuffed her male boss. This time, she complained to the university disciplinary committee. The case is still pending, but Karuhanga believes it illustrates why a formal sexual harassment policy, as well as a campaign to build awareness about the problem, is needed.

"They were a bit hostile," said Karuhanga. "The assumption is that this happened because the woman called for it."

If approved, the new policy would generally define sexual harassment as any unwanted advance. It would put in place a committee of student and staff representatives to hear complaints confidentially and investigate allegations. Harassers would be reprimanded, disciplined or dismissed, depending on the seriousness of the offense.

Lukewarm Response

So far, it has drawn a lukewarm response from the mostly male senior administrators at Makerere. The proposal is scheduled to go before the University Senate at its next meeting in May.

"Of course, some of these men are just going to say, 'Oh, these women are out to get us,'" said Assistant Registrar Evelyn Nyakoojo, one of the architects of the draft policy. "But we are not attacking anyone. We don't want to put anyone on the defensive."

On the other hand, the climate may be right to push the issue. Few employers have formal rules against sexual harassment in Uganda. But last month, Parliament passed new labor laws for the first time since the 1970s, after pressure from the United States that threatened to exclude the country from the African Growth and Opportunities Act, a program that provides incentives to encourage trade with the U.S. Among other things, the new legislation outlaws sexual harassment in the workplace.

Even if the policy is approved, Karuhanga admits, enforcing it will be another matter. But she believes just getting it on the books will send an important message. "It will move us a step forward," she said. "This whole thing is an advocacy tool. For people to know that something is boiling."


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Rachel Scheier is a freelance writer based in Kampala.

This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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