In an alarming trend, Uganda's bravest, most dedicated women, intent on serving their country, are told to stay home.
In August, the Police discontinued pregnant and nursing trainees in a career advancement training programme. (see Punished for Being Mothers, The New Vision, 31 August 2004.)
The Police offer a fundamentally flawed rationale for discontinuing pregnant and nursing trainees, arguing that exclusion protects both mother and child.
The Police, however, offer such programmes infrequently. Applicants face a competitive qualification procedure. Male trainees already outnumber females. By discontinuing these trainees, not only are the Police perpetuating a discriminatory culture, they are also depriving these women of a rare opportunity for career advancement.
If the strategy is to protect the child, the Police will achieve opposite by forcing women to conceal their pregnancy. The mother, in her early stage of pregnancy might forgo prenatal care to avoid detection.
Compelling a mother to choose between her child and her livelihood may force her to seek alternative means to terminate the pregnancy and yet abortion is illegal.
The Police claim, given their budgetary constraints, they cannot maintain adequate facilities for pregnant and nursing women at their training centres. While no one disputes this, the Police are exploiting one incident to justify discontinuing all pregnant and nursing women. That one incident occurred during the relatively short, but rigorous physical segment of the training programme. If an overweight male trainee collapsed from exhaustion during physical training, would the Police exclude all overweight males? Or would the Police merely advise that particular fellow to reduce his portion of posho and beans?
Instead of protecting the mother and child and promoting efficiency, the current trend in the security forces leaves a healthy Ugandan woman unable to serve her country.
Moreover, policies or laws that punish pregnancy and motherhood violate the constitution and are a breach of Uganda's international obligations.
Punishing couples for their failure to delay marriage and reproduction violates Article 31(1) of the Constitution, which gives all men and women â€œthe right to marry and to found a familyâ€ and entitles both to equal rights in marriage.
Such policies and laws also violate Articles 21, 33, and 40 on gender equality by discriminating against women based on their biological function. Uganda's Constitution prevents anyone â€” including the police â€” from depriving women of full and equal dignity of the person; from restricting womenâ€™s reproductive rights; and from infringing on womenâ€™s economic rights.
These measures, however, disproportionately affect women. In a cultural context where there is enormous pressure for a woman to marry and for a wife to have sexual intercourse with her husband, a woman may not have control over her sexual activity. Should her livelihood hinge on a situation she does not control? Moreover, contraceptives fail and abortion is illegal. While a man can easily deny responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy, a woman must either abstain from sex or give birth and face punishment.
Articles 23, 26, 28, and 44 entitle all citizens to due process, including a fair hearing, before they are deprived of personal liberty or property. The Police, however, summarily discontinued its pregnant and breastfeeding trainees. No notice. No hearing.
Policies and laws that punish pregnancy and motherhood also contravene the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and other international human rights instruments.
By punishing pregnancy, Uganda is breaching its international obligations to eliminate gender inequality and protect other fundamental human rights.
Instead of seeking to regulate their reproductive rights, the Police must recognise that their officers, male or female, choose to serve their country, know their duty, and should be afforded their due dignity and respect.
The Superintendent of Police apologise to these women, adequately compensate them for suffering such capricious discrimination, and ensure that the Police implement a gender-sensitive policy and a transparent procedure.
The writer is an expatriate lawyer attached to Law and Advocacy For Women in Uganda