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Anguish and Misery; The Tales of Uganda Girls' Initiation into Sex

During a SHIP Training Workshop in Rukungiri in 2011

Riiiingggg riinnggg !!!. It was the day before we broke off for the Christmas holiday, and I was winding up and almost ready to leave 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 for the Sexual Health Improvement Project (SHIP), who 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 but she concealed the matter after receiving a bribe (money) from the perpetrator of the abuse. 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. She is emaciated, weak and malnourished. I need advice on how best to handle this delicate issue,” John said in a poignant tone. 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: these are realities girls are grappling with in my community. I had to use all the means at my disposal to find a solution.

John goes to schools to conduct sexual health education to youth using informal, participatory and interactive methods. As coordinator of SHIP, it is my job to create activities 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 (in-charge children’s affairs) to take up the issue. Setting the wheels in motion to get Sarah out of her predicament reminded me of the path I have taken to get here, and of all the reasons there is such an urgent need for sexual health education. Rape, incest, teen pregnancy, and transmission of AIDS are all serious problems in Uganda. I believe the only way to combat this situation 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 to have a society of healthy young people empowered to make informed and responsible decision regarding their sexuality. And with more than 60 percent of Ugandans under 24 years, we’ve got no time to lose.

Navigating Adolescence with No Adult Guidance

A girl is considered a woman in my community when she develops breasts. My personal experience in adolescence is that this transition stage is so challenging, yet punctuated with excitement, exploration, discovery and vulnerability. Adolescents experience a lot of surprises and fright because they have never been prepared for this stage of life. So how much can we blame them anyway when things go wrong? After all life is learnt and experienced by each and every person! Every adult has been through this transition in life and has had an experience of mystification, culpability, quandary …you name it.

My adolescence was filled with vacuums of information, because none of my parents ever 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 a Drum [fashion, music, relationships] magazine, she scolded and beat me. “So you have started reading this kind of magazines, do you want to get spoil….!” she shouted.

My mother’s rage is a typical scenario in Uganda, where discussing issues about sex between adolescents and parents is simply taboo. Instead, heaping threats on adolescents about issues of sex and relationships with opposite sex has only attracted the desire among young people to test the facts, discover and experiment.

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 adolescence issues for which I had no solutions. At 15 years of age, one of the big boys in my class used to tease and abuse me (sensitive touches) but I did not know how to deal with this situation. I began hating school, my self esteem was affected, but fortunately he left our school. I went on being confronted by all sorts of unfair situations and thought the world just hated me. Inside me I suffered alone while the society was busy threatening me instead of educating me.

Making personal decisions as a young person can be a daunting challenge without advice, information and experience. All one is told is that having sex before marriage is an abomination and immoral. But this kind of information and parental threats are not effective in protecting youth from unsafe behaviours.

Studies show that by 18 years of age, 72 percent 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 before hand. 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. While 20 percent of girls have their initial sexual encounter coerced or conducted under considerable pressure. Having the support of health professionals in the community can empower them to seek help in such situations.

As a grown up adult and mother of teens, I had never understood the dilemma 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 the adults/parents understand what young people are struggling with to become responsible adults.

Abused by their own ‘Shields’

My work with SHIP has brought me face to face with horrors that are difficult to comprehend, and has taught me stories like Sarah’s that are common in Uganda. Many cases of girls who are abused, defiled, and raped by relatives in their homes in the name of guardianship are reported daily. Daphne a young nursing officer and SHE, is passionate about integrating her skills in Sexual Health Education to her day-to-day work. Her experience in working with adolescents gives an insight into the glaring dilemma adolescents grapple with.

One of Daphne’s horrible experiences was when Rose, 17 sought a five-year contraceptive injection from Daphne at a health facility last year. Rose, from a poor family, a student under the care of her uncle in the Kampala divulged that her uncle was sexually abusing her. She had already conducted two crude abortions; the last one left her critically ill, so she wanted to avoid getting pregnant again. Rose was advised to tell her mother about it. “I told my parents but they say I should endure the situation (abuse) for the sake of completing my examinations”. Rose lamented in tears. Rose only feared pregnancy which is reprimanded by Ugandan society and did not think about sexually transmitted diseases/HIV/AIDS.

They Dare All Perils
Abortion is illegal in Uganda and is punishable. I lost many of my own adolescent friends to abortion, others dropped out of school due to pregnancy. In 2011, Rhoda, 17 years old, was clandestinely brought and abandoned in the rural health unit in a critical condition by her friends. Rhoda had conducted a crude abortion that went bad and septic. This was an emergency, but post-abortion care services are not developed in Uganda. Rhoda had to be transferred to a higher health facility urgently to save her life. Rhoda was rushed to the hospital about ten kilometers away, however her life could not be saved.

Poverty and negligence a risk factor

The adolescents say one common reason they engage in sex is poverty and negligence. Parents are preoccupied meeting their own personal needs and have forgotten about the needs of their children. Parents think school fees is the most important thing in their children’s life and 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 (costing 500/=) but her parents refused to provide. The Universal Primary Education programme requires that parents provide children scholastic material, food and uniform. Disappointed, she went home weeping knowing her future was doomed without an education. A businessman eventually lured Hope into sex and that continued since this kept her at school. Hope is now 12 years but 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 her, a proposal she rejected outright. But how many girls can find the inner strength to take such a defiant stance? Her old, poor mother is toiling to get tuition fees to complete her nursing training. Phina’s personal experience is her motivation to work as a SHE to educate adolescents so that they don’t go through her experience. To help her succeed, I have created some time to mentor Phina. Talking to her on the phone at least once a week gives her more courage and motivation to achieve her goals.

Where do we go from here?

I am certain sexual health education needs to begin as early as 11 years given that children especially in rural areas tend to complete primary education at 17 years. Waiting until later ages in to begin sex education is a missed opportunity. Defilement of young girls is at an alarming rate. Last year over 63 girls in 30 primary schools in Ngora district who registered Primary Leaving Examinations either got pregnant or married.

Defilement cases in Ngora district are never concluded in the law courts because of bribery of police by perpetrators or cases are settled out of court. The burden of proof is left to the victim who cannot afford the expenses. One village community ganged against a school matron and threatened to rape her daughters if she dared pursue a defilement case with the authorities.

Coordinating SHIP has been an eye opener to me about adolescents’ sexual health. It is clear that young people do not have adequate information about what to expect as they grow up and how they are supposed to react. Adolescents have no one to listen to them. To combat this situation, SHIP goes into the schools to complement the [formal] efforts of the public education sector in sexual health education, which is not effective because it is delivered using the classroom approach. The vital role played by parents, teachers and community leaders in the lives of young people is recognised. It is my dream that one day every adolescent will be able to have the information they requires to make better and appropriate decisions about their sexuality. SHIP is working out an expansion program with the local members of Parliament to reach Ngora youths with these skills and information.

It’s no doubt that the current generation has been unfair to the next generation. They have relegated their responsibilities to none, and they 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.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Youth discussing in a session
Pre selection of SHEs



Stella Paul's picture

There is hope yet

Dear Ikirimat

Often, when I read a post that discusses a problem, my first reaction is, so what can we do about it? And you never disappoint me. That's the reason why I love reading your posts. With women like you at work, I know there is hope yet for the vast young majority of Uganda. Good luck and god bless!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

ikirimat's picture

We will walk together

Thank you Stella for reading my post. I will keep all posted on the progress of SHIP.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Monica Clarke's picture

Dear Ikirimat Without you and

Dear Ikirimat

Without you and others like those in SHIP life would have no light for many of the young people in Africa and in the world. You are able to identify with them in a special way, because you have not lost the memory of how it was for you as an adolescent. If you keep those memories alive your healing strength will be increased each time you listen and do.

Lots of strength from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

ikirimat's picture

Addressing the root causes

It makes me uneasy when programmes are focusing on addressing the effects other than the root causes. To date there is an attempt to provide handouts for youth who have dropped out of school for various reasons and yet the root causes are being neglected. This is what SHIP is addressing with a view of changing attitudes and behavior of our future generation

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Okeny-Lucia's picture

Dont stop!

Thank you are a great inspiration to other educators of sexual health.Please find courage,dont stop the work you are doing is huge.I know it will carry a huge impact on the future generation.Sexual issues are not easy to address ,i see you have managed and prevailed where few can.

Lucia Buyanza
Reproductive Health

ikirimat's picture


Your words are encouraging and motivating. You rightly said it, The issues of adolescents are difficult but we have to begin from somewhere.

Thank you Lucia

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

AmyM's picture

Way to go!

Grace, I am filled with admiration. Your story is powerfully told. I love how expertly you wove your own voice and experience throughout the narrative. And all the stories of individual girls show the magnitude of the problem in such a compelling way. My "takeaway" is that SHIP is a model that works; it provides desperately needed services to Ugandan youth and it should be expanded throughout the country.


ikirimat's picture

SHIP is the way to go

Thank Amy for your encouragement and especially your valuable guidance in this process.It is my dream that the youth are given special targeting if we have to see a bright future for this country.

I value your comments so much

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

WILDKat's picture


You write the truth you see with such powerful rawness, that my skin is creeping from the creepiness of raping an 11 year old girl.

If you have not yet connected with Beatrice Achieng Nas, please do. You both champion early education for girls.

I look forward to reading more from you.

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

ikirimat's picture


Thanks WILDKat, actually we cant trust anyone with our children now. I am in contact with Beatrice and have shared a lot.

Our girls need to be empowered now and together we can achieve.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

noreens's picture

I read it when you posted the

I read it when you posted the draft, and i thought it was really good. I still do think so. It's so important that these teenagers get proper guidance. It's great that there are people like you out there!


ikirimat's picture

harmful Cultural practices

SHIP is also targeting reaching out to the communities and parents through radio programmes and any possible meduim. These people are so rooted in their culture that bar parents from talking to their children about sexuality.

So thank you for your comment.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture


The story you paint is shocking. Your statement "Inside me I suffered alone while the society was busy threatening me instead of educating me" really struck me in that I am sure that many girls feel the same way that you did. I commend you for your courageous and much needed undertaking of the SHIP program. I can hear your passion for this issue thousands of miles away. Good for you for doing something about this horrible situation. Great frontline journal!

Have you connected with Beatrice Achieng Nas? She was a correspondent last year, is from Uganda and is passionate about girls' education and mentoring. She also just launched her own program for mentoring girls.

Keep up the great work,


"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

ikirimat's picture

Positive feedback

Hi Rachael,

Reading your appreciative comments gives me and SHIP more courage to pursue the cause of the adolescents. Actually, I am connected with Beatrice Achieng and we have continued sharing how to enhance each others efforts. Beatrice is doing great work for the girls.

I have also just talked to the SHE (John) who is following up with the rape victim. Her CD4 counted has been done and she is urgently required to start on ARV. It has also emerged that it was the step dad who raped the girl and has since then disappeared. The mother again remarried and the girl was denied education since she was enrolled in a far off school and required to pay school fees of 8,000= per term. Actually, the parents had condemned the girl to death. However, John's efforts have yielded positive results in that a volunteer has come up to pay fees for the girl (15,000= per term)in a school near her home.

A lot of counseling has so far been done to the girl and her mother and step dad. I am happy for this.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

ikirimat's picture

Working for others

Hi Valerie
Making a positive difference in someones life is what makes me satisfied.
Thanks so much for your comments.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Celine's picture

Hi Grace, The work you do is

Hi Grace,

The work you do is awesome. Mentoring and guiding adolescents is a big task.

Thank you for sharing with us.


ikirimat's picture


Hi Celline

Thanks for your positive feeed back.We owe the next generation.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

amykessel's picture

Wiping my tears

This is so powerfully written, and so horrifying, that I am haunted by the images still even though I first read your article several days ago. Thank you for your bravery in bringing this to light, and in sharing your firsthand understanding of the issues here. It gives me hope to know that you are holding the hands of these girls, and offering them an alternative to the pitiable trajectory so many before them have been forced to take.

Thank you, Grace, for your wisdom, courage and clarity. Getting the word out like this will help bring an end to ignorance and cruelty for teenage girls in Uganda and beyond.


ikirimat's picture

You are great !

Thank you Amy ,
You are such an inspiration and strength to me. walking with you by my side has been very instrumental in molding me. I can see my dream taking shape.

You are great !

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

mrbeckbeck's picture

Bless you

Wow, Grace, you are a hero. The work that you are doing is so important, the task before you is so big, but you continue on because there is no other choice! To do nothing in the face of such difficulties would be impossible. You are an inspiration.

Your writing here is incredible... the way you have brought in specific stories of individual situations, including your own life's experience brings a raw reality to an abstract concept (sexual health education for adolescents). Thank you. I applaud your hard work, and your clear commitment to making Uganda's future brighter.

With deep respect and gratitude,

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

ikirimat's picture


Scott, your words of appreciation are so touching and inspiring. Thanks a great deal for the opportunity WP has offered me to be heard.

Kind Regards

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Sara Collins's picture

The Stakes of So High


I am moved by your vivid and powerful article. Your words "we have no time to lose" jumped out at me as a collective call to action. I would add that we have not time to lose and the stakes are SO high.

You vividly paint the picture of the horrific reality and the various factors feeding this reality. Your expertise shines through and further strengthens the power of your piece.

Stay the course and know that you are making an incredible and lasting difference.

Warm regards, Sara

ikirimat's picture

So high!

Thanks for your positive comments and encouragement.I totally agree the stakes are SO high. Its always my wish that every woman should take time to mentor at least one girl. One at a time will make a difference in the future women lives.

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Leslie Stoupas's picture

It takes a generation

Grace Ikirimat,

Sometimes it takes a generation to change the old ways and the old lessons, but I think you are doing it faster than that! How lucky for these young women to have someone like you in their corner, fighting for their right to be educated, safe and in charge of their own futures. I commend you on the wonderful work you are doing!

Leslie Stoupas

Leslie Stoupas

ikirimat's picture


Thanks Leslie for your appreciation. I concur with you 100%. Its a process that will take time but the dream will be achieved one day .

Again Thank you

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

usha kc's picture

Wow!! Grace I admire your

Wow!! Grace I admire your writting, I admire your work dear.
superb !


ikirimat's picture

Many hugs

I appreciate your comments.

Many hugs dear Ushka

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

Barbara M Bracewell's picture

SHIP is a life saver


I cannot tell you how touching your story is. This is a dilemma faced by not only young girls in Uganda but, also in many other parts of Africa including Liberia, my homeland. The writing is extremely poignant, raw, real and the call for action is very urgent indeed. Great work is being done by SHIP and by you as well as all the advocates working hard to institute a change in Uganda.The efforts you all are making to eliminate the sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls and women must be applauded. A male-dominated society does not help however, authorities must be held 100% accountable in ensuring that perpetrators are prosecuted when such violations against girls and women occur. Women in our African societies have been suppressed for so long that it is crucial for us to stand up and be heard in loud and clear voices as we fight for equality. I dare say the fact that we as women are expected to be seen and not heard makes it extremely difficult to be vocal especially in our rural settings where females are even more oppressed and suppressed. Another problem is the issue of not being able to discuss sexual and reproductive health and such related topics with our children. This dilemma you focus on stems directly from the premise that if a woman was not taught these facts of sex and about her sexuality with her own mother as a young girl, then she has no foundation from which to do the same with her own daughter. Grace, your own personal experience of learning from friends (very often blatant misconceptions and myths about sex and boys) backs up this theory. Indeed, I too had a very similar learning pad from which to launch even though I am from West Africa. It is a sad reality of many of our young African girls and your spotlight on the issue in this Frontline Journal highlights the arduous journey ahead to changing this phenomenon. Keep up the great work!!


ikirimat's picture


Dear Bracewell,

You sum it up so accurately. Indeed today's generation should be accountable for the future generation. Again thanks for you elaborate analysis.

Be blessed

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."

MaDube's picture

Dear Ikirimat

You raise a very important issue that is not only limited to Uganda but many countries as well. I remember sometime last year in my country there was a huge outcry when the ministry of education contemplated providing condoms in schools. Parents were outraged arguing that this would promote promiscuity. On the other hand some people argued that with or without condoms teenagers were indulging in sex hence giving them condoms so they could protect themselves was better than letting them contract HIV/AIDS. Yes our culture does not permit us to talk freely about sexuality in a way that enables young people to make informed decision about their sexual conduct. Sex education is key and crucial and I am glad in Uganda your initiative is taking strides to remedy this error.



Greengirl's picture

Dear Grace

Your story is gripping and SHIP is doing a great job!
I seem to ask a lot of questions this days, please bear with me. Do you know the question Sarah's story stirred up within me?...............What on earth will make a mother exchange her child's future for money? What manner of mother can one call her? There was no one around at the moment to answer my question and that made me wish you were here, because you have taken on a challenge many parents shy away from; that is, parenting.
The bitter truth is that while all mothers are women, not all women are mothers. More so, not all parents are capable of parenting their wards. Very sad!
I believe in your competence, keep up the good work.

Very Warm Hugs,


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