By Dr Ian Clarke
Being from Northern Ireland, I was part of a community steeped in religion and politics. There are few issues which people feel more strongly about than religion and politics – possibly followed by football in Uganda. When these two issues are put together they make a powerful and sometimes explosive mix. In Northern Ireland the problem was supposed to be the divide between those who supported the union with Britain and those who supported a united Ireland, but people often split straight down the religious divide between Catholic and Protestant.
During the American elections religion played a key role in getting Trump elected because the Evangelicals strongly supported Trump, and continue to be among his staunchest supporters. In the Middle East religion plays a key role in politics, with the Arab states split between Sunnis and Shias, and in Israel they have just called another general election primarily due to whether ultra orthodox Jews should be exempted from military service.
In Uganda there is a great deal of tolerance between the different faiths, but religion still plays a huge role in politics, with certain parties being traditionally aligned with Protestants while others are aligned with Catholics.
President Museveni understands the value of keeping the different groups on board and offers various incentives to ensure that religious groups do not become a political threat. On the Christian side, while we used to have only the Church of Uganda and the Catholic Church, the Pentecostals have now arisen as a force to be reckoned with. These churches are strongly influenced by American pastors with some high profile evangelists visiting Uganda regularly and even being received at State House.
Religion has a strong influence on government policy, particularly on those issues that are seen as having a moral dimension. These include contraception, family planning, abortion and sex education in schools, with the Catholic Church and Protestants taking broadly the same line, though Protestants are not strictly against contraception.
Since religious groups have such a big influence on these national issues what is their impact? On contraception the official government policy is that teenagers should not have access to contraception, and criticism has also been leveled at schools for carrying out sex education, so many schools avoid the subject. The teaching of the churches is abstinence until marriage. But what impact is the teaching of the church having on their flock in reducing the rate of teenage pregnancies? It appears not much since at 25 – 35% we have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world.
This high rate of teenage pregnancy is in turn a major driver of the high rate of HIV among young girls, the high maternal mortality rate, and the rapid unsustainable population growth, particularly among the poor. Therefore we have key issues in which religion has a significant influence on government policy. But the results of that policy are dismal, contributing to increased mobility and mortality among young girls and causing an emerging national crisis of unsustainable population growth. This in turn is causing catastrophic youth unemployment – a political powder keg ready to explode any day.
I respect people’s faith; I founded a mission hospital. But it was heartbreaking to see another teenage girl die in childbirth, or develop VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula) and become permanently incontinent. What we are seeing in Uganda today is children bearing children. We can’t just ignore the facts and bury our heads in the sand. Of course the effective thing would be for the churches to have sufficient authority and moral standing that their flock obeyed them and teenagers abstained from sex, but this is not what is happening and instead we have an epidemic of teenage pregnancy.
The issue urgently needs to be addressed in the churches, in the home and in the schools, but it is largely ignored. We may not like to face up to what is happening because it is an admission of a failed policy. But teenagers are being sexually active and we either need to change their behavior or make contraception available to them. Preaching what should be, while ignoring what is actually happening and doing nothing about it, is hypocrisy and would have been condemned by Jesus. Government policy should facilitate the Ministry of Health and the medical community to provide practical solutions to the real situation on the ground.