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 an adult and mother of teens, I never understood the dilemma today’s adolescents go through until I began working with them through SHIP. Going into schools and communicating with young people in informal, participatory ways has given me new insight into their worlds. I realize today that having experienced the transition into adulthood is not adequate to make parents understand what young people are struggling with to become responsible adults.
My work with SHIP has brought me face to face with horrors that are difficult to comprehend, and has made me aware of stories like Sarah’s that are common in Uganda. Cases of girls who are abused, defiled, and raped by relatives in their homes are reported daily. Daphne, a young nursing officer and sexual health educator, was horrified by the story of Rose, a 17 year old who came to her at a health facility last year seeking a five-year contraceptive injection. Rose, a poor student under the care of her uncle in Kampala, divulged that her uncle was sexually abusing her. When Daphne met her, Rose had already conducted two crude abortions; the last one left her critically ill, so she wanted to avoid getting pregnant again. Daphne advised Rose to tell her mother about what was going on. “I told my parents, but they say I should endure the situation for the sake of completing my examinations,” Rose lamented in tears. Rose only feared pregnancy, which is reprimanded by Ugandan society. She did not think about sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV/AIDS.
No Way Out
Abortion is illegal in Uganda. In 2011, Rhoda, 17 years old, was clandestinely brought to the rural health unit by her friends and abandoned there in critical condition. Rhoda had conducted a crude abortion that went septic. This was an emergency, but post-abortion care services are not developed in Uganda. Rhoda had to be transferred urgently to a different health facility. She was rushed to the hospital about ten kilometers away; however her life could not be saved. I lost many of my own adolescent friends to abortions that went bad. Others dropped out of school due to pregnancy.
The adolescents I work with identify poverty and negligence as common reasons for engaging in sex. Parents are preoccupied meeting their own personal needs and have forgotten about the needs of their children. Many parents think school fees are the most important thing in their children’s lives and they overlook nurturing them and providing sex education. Hope’s story is not uncommon: She was sent away from school to collect a book and pencil that her parents refused to provide. The Universal Primary Education programme requires that parents provide children scholastic materials, food, and uniforms. Disappointed, Hope went home weeping, knowing her future was doomed without an education. A businessman eventually lured Hope into sex with the promise of keeping her in school. Hope is now 12 years old and has just tested HIV positive.
Hope’s terrible dilemma reflects the fact that parents still believe that children are the sole responsibility of government. Universal Primary Education is now compulsory, but the law is not yet in place to deal with parents who do not meet their obligations of keeping children in school.
Phina, now a nursing student and a sexual health educator for SHIP, has vowed to complete her education against all odds. She says her father promised never to educate a girl because her elder sister got pregnant while at school. He arranged a husband for Phina, a proposal she rejected outright. But how many girls can find the inner strength to take such a defiant stance?
Where Do We Go From Here?
I am certain sexual health education needs to begin as early as 11 years. Children, especially in rural areas, tend to complete primary education at 17. Waiting until later ages to begin sex education is a missed opportunity. Last year over 63 girls in 30 primary schools in Ngora district who registered for Primary Leaving Examinations either got pregnant or married.
Coordinating SHIP has opened my eyes about adolescents’ sexual health. It is clear that young people do not have adequate information about what to expect as they grow up. Adolescents have no one to listen to them. To combat this situation, we go into the schools to complement the formal efforts of the public education sector in sexual health education. We recognize the vital role played by parents, teachers, and community leaders in the lives of young people. It is my dream that one day every adolescent will be able to have the information they require to make appropriate decisions about their sexuality. We are working out an expansion program with some of the local members of Parliament to reach youths with these skills and information.
The current generation has been unfair to the next generation. We are leaving the youth to their own fate. It’s critical that we educate young people about sexual health, about the dangers and consequences of unsafe behaviors. We must give girls the tools and empowerment they need to stay in school, seek help when they need it, and fight back against sexual abuse—and we need to do it now.