Remarks by U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission William D. Bent at Annual Retreat for Heads of Church of Uganda Post-Primary Education Institutions

Remarks by U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission William D. Bent at Annual Retreat for Heads of Church of Uganda Post-Primary Education Institutions

Uganda Christian University, Mukono | December 20, 2022 (as prepared for delivery)

Thank you for inviting me to speak today at your annual retreat.  It is an honor to be with you as I represent the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Brown.  The Ambassador wanted very much to be with you here today and sends her best wishes as we enter the holiday season.

Thank you for all the work you do to educate our children.  Ensuring that young people worldwide have access to quality education is a top priority for the U.S. government.  Here in Uganda, we are committed to helping students stay in school, even when faced with challenges such as unexpected pregnancy, household demands, and financial barriers.  We are also committed to ensuring that children, at any age, are safe from harm while in the classroom.

Each of us can play a critical role in ensuring that Uganda’s children and youth are protected and empowered to become resilient, productive citizens.  This includes promoting their physical and mental health and guaranteeing their safety at home and in school.  We must provide equitable access to education and social support for both girls and boys.  By doing this, we equip young people to participate constructively in their communities and take part in the decisions that affect them.

Evidence shows that when children are exposed to adversity – including violence, discrimination, and ridicule – and do not receive adequate support from trusted adults afterward, they are more likely to experience a host of negative outcomes later in life.  They are more likely to have poor physical health and lower economic productivity, and to struggle with depression and substance abuse.  We all recognize that these are difficulties Uganda can ill afford if it hopes to keep progressing toward its goal of middle-income status by 2040.

Evidence shows that children are also negatively impacted when they experience corporal punishment in schools.  Corporal punishment in schools is a violation of children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Uganda ratified in 1990.  Legalities aside, corporal punishment undermines the very objectives of education itself.  Global data show that corporal punishment is associated with lower grades, poorer performance on standardized exams, and increased drop-out rates.  Physical punishment also increases children’s disruptive behavior and aggression in the classroom and contributes to higher rates of depression and anxiety among students.

Conversely, when children have mentors and positive social support in school, we see the exact opposite.  Even in the face of adversity, young people who have positive relationships with teachers, school staff, and other caring adults are more likely to achieve great things academically, professionally, and socially.  They are more confident, have fewer physical and mental health issues, and are better able to manage interpersonal conflict constructively.

The more we can do to provide children with an education that expands their creativity, exposes them to the great thinkers of the world, and enables them to be accomplished problem solvers, the better equipped they will be to find solutions to the great problems of our day.  They will be better able to distinguish between false ideas and fact-based truths.  And they will be better positioned to treat everyone with respect and compassion as they recognize that people around the world are multi-dimensional and that it is important for us to appreciate people for who they are and the richness of perspective our differences create.  If our children can gain these attributes through a well-rounded education, we will see less societal conflict, greater security, and stronger economic fundamentals propelling our societies toward a better collective life.

Recognizing the immense importance of quality education, as well as the reality that what happens in childhood and adolescence can fundamentally change the trajectory of a person’s life, the U.S. government, in close coordination with the Ministry of Education and Sports, invests heavily in programs that promote strong foundations early in life.  These include the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) public school system investments in early grade reading, which help children unlock their future through literacy, as well as our School-Related Gender-Based Violence Prevention programming.  Together, these activities equip young people with the ‘hard’ skills (such as literacy), as well as the ‘soft’ skills (such as conflict management and respect for gender equality) that they need to grow into healthy, productive citizens.

I want to note that the adversity I spoke about earlier that greatly affects outcomes for children later in life can include discrimination or bullying that they may experience because of any difference they may represent – ethnic, religious, physical or mental ability, gender, or sexual orientation.  We have seen great strides in this country’s efforts to combat discrimination in some of these areas.

However, on the last one – sexual orientation – we still see and hear a great deal of misinformation.  Every child should benefit from the same universal human rights.  That is a concept enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is evident in religious doctrine, as well.  Every child should feel safe.  It is well documented that LGBTQ teens have an increased suicide risk not because of their behavior but because of the mental stress they experience when they aren’t loved, treated with respect, or seen as fellow human beings. These young people are our children.  Whatever your personal beliefs are, I trust we can all agree on the importance of protecting all children and ensuring that they feel valued.

Turning back to the main topic of today’s meeting, everyone deserves an education.  Education can truly change lives, both for individuals and societies at large.  We share your commitment to and passion for this work.  We thank you for your efforts and wish you the best as you continue to help the children of Uganda.  I wish you all happy holidays and a prosperous New Year.