Laboring for Change
This story is part of a series exploring maternal health and reproductive rights across the world.
Click on the stories below to hear from other women on the front lines of calling for an end to a globalized war on women.
UGANDA: Creating a Healthier Future for Our Youth
As early marriages, pregnancies, botched illegal abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases threaten to end childhood for Uganda's girls, Voices of Our Future correspondent Ikirimat Grace Odeke fights for their missing futures.
"My mother’s rage is a typical scenario in Uganda, where parents talking about sex with their children is simply taboo."
It was the day before we broke off for the Christmas holiday. I was wrapping up at the office when a phone call came from 400 kilometers away. On the other end of the line was John, a student nurse and sexual health educator, and my colleague at the Sexual Health Improvement Project (SHIP). He urgently wanted advice on how best to handle the ordeal of an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a man two years ago.
The girl reported the abuse to her mother, who concealed the matter after receiving a bribe from the perpetrator. The mother warned the little girl never to tell anyone what had happened. “Sarah has just revealed this to me after she tested HIV+ during our outreach visit today,” John said in a poignant tone. “She is emaciated, weak, and malnourished. I need advice on how best to handle this delicate issue.” As I listened, I found myself baffled both by the details of Sarah’s story and by the fact that her situation is all too common in Uganda: This is the reality girls are grappling with in my community.
As coordinator of SHIP, it is my job to help young people like Sarah who confide in our sexual health educators. We are now connecting Sarah to the local health facility for treatment and are getting in touch with the District Probation Officer who is in charge of children’s affairs to take up the issue. Setting the wheels in motion to get Sarah out of her predicament reminds me of my own path to this work, and of all the reasons we urgently need sexual health education. Rape, incest, teen pregnancy, and transmission of AIDS are all serious problems in Uganda. I believe the only way to combat these situations is to address the cultural and social issues that cause them. I know that education is our most powerful tool to create a safer and healthier future for Uganda’s youth. SHIP’s vision is a society of healthy young people empowered to make informed and responsible decisions regarding their sexuality. And with more than 70% of Ugandans under 24 years, we’ve got no time to lose.
Navigating Adolescence Alone
A girl is considered a woman in my community when she develops breasts. Adolescents who have never been prepared for this stage of life are surprised and frightened. How can we blame them when things go wrong?
My own adolescence was challenging, yet punctuated with excitement, exploration, discovery, and vulnerability. My parents never talked to me about growing up. Friends told me about maturation, menstruation, and relationships with boys. Of course these were mixed messages. I grew up in a remote area, without TV; the small radio was only tuned in by my father for the news broadcast or his favorite music channel. I vividly remember the day my mother found me stealthily reading Drum, a fashion, music, and relationships magazine. She scolded and beat me. “So you have started reading this kind of magazine, do you want to get spoiled!” she shouted.
My mother’s rage is a typical scenario in Uganda, where parents talking about sex with their children is simply taboo. Because of these cultural realities, it was up to me to make decisions on sensitive matters that none of my parents wanted to discuss. I have no sister, so I was confronted with big issues for which I had no solutions.
When I was 15 years old, one of the big boys in my class used to tease and abuse me with inappropriate touches. I did not know how to deal with this situation. I began hating school and my self esteem was affected. Fortunately he left our school, but I continued to be confronted by all sorts of unfair situations. I thought the world just hated me. Inside I suffered alone while my society was busy threatening me instead of educating me.
Making decisions as a young person can be a daunting challenge without advice, information, and experience. Young people in Uganda are told that having sex before marriage is an abomination and immoral. But these kinds of threats do not protect youth from unsafe behaviors. They only attract the desire among young people to test the facts, discover, and experiment.
Studies show that by 18 years of age, 72% of girls in Uganda have had sexual intercourse. The reality is that adolescents are engaging in sex and we need to give them the right information beforehand. Peer pressure motivates many adolescents to initiate sexual activity early, and financial transactions are a major component of adolescent sexual relationships. In fact, 31% of young women in Uganda report receiving money for sex. Being educated about the likely dangers and consequences of such acts can help them decide. For 20% of girls, their initial sexual encounter is coerced or conducted under considerable pressure. Having the support of health professionals in the community can empower them to seek help in such situations. . . .