By Deusdedit Ruhangariyo
Culture in Uganda forbids adolescents to talk about sex and yet they know much about it and they are playing it. The result of this is a high teenage pregnancy rate of 25% in Uganda.
Pregnancy is a major cause for girls dropping out of school and contributes to the high teenage child bearing and abortions which contribute to the high maternal death rate in Uganda.
But I always ask who the spoiler is here? Those who bury their heads in the sand as the children are getting married off and also widowed? Those who bury their heads in the sand as girl children are auctioned for money as brides?
Don’t’ we know that child marriages hold girls back and keep our communities poor? Don’t we know that it hinders the achievement of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals? It is a pity that child marriage is not taken as a serious agenda both nationally and internationally.
In Uganda today, it is a shame that 65,988 children (both male and female) aged 10 – 14 are currently married. More than 6,740 are either divorced or separated and 1,420 are widowed (according to 2002 Uganda Population and Housing Census). And yet all that parents, religious leaders and most Ugandans say is that sex is a taboo to these children and whoever talks about it to them is spoiling them.
Shame! For goodness’ sake, these are child brides. Child brides face higher risk of death and injury due to early sexual activity and child bearing. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
I would like to ask the religious people and all those who care to listen to a simple question: What is more evil? Those burying their heads in the sand in the name of culture as our children are devoured by the evil of child marriage, early pregnancy and STIs including HIV or those of us who are looking this evil in the face by saying we must stop it?
According to Girls Not Brides, globally child marriage denies over 10 million girls a year their rights to health, education and security. Every day, more than 25,000 girls under 18 are married with little if any say in the decision. This translates into 19 girls a minute being denied their voice.
Young people between ages of 15 and 24 have the highest rates of STIs. The proportion is even higher in developing countries. Nearly 12 million young people have HIV and AIDS. Young women are significantly more likely than young men to be infected with HIV. In nearly 20 sub-Saharan countries, at least 5% of women aged 15 to 24 have HIV, according to the Joint United Nations Programs on HIV/AIDS 2002.
With the world population having crossed the seven billion mark, to control the pressures from this huge population, we need to beat the odds and engage our youth in sexual and reproductive health (SRH). We therefore need to act fast to help our young people access sexual reproductive health. There is no way we can do this if our young people still think health centres are meant for pregnant women, small children and old people. We must remove the barriers of ignorance, where young people think they are not at risk when in actual fact they are.
The social stigma that comes with seeing a young person approach a health center and ask for SRH-related information is too much. For example, an unmarried female youth will experience a lot of discomfort whem buying condoms from a male shopkeeper yet even our service providers are culprits because some of them scold young people. ‘Why do you want to know that? That information is for adults,’ that is what one young person told me she was told when she approached a SRH clinic at a regional hospital.
Other challenges young people face are logistical. They may not be able to access services due to them not being open at a convenient time or they may lack money or transportation.
The good thing is that we can remove these barriers by giving to young people SRH services that are friendly and accessible. We need to allow young people to freely meet SRH providers and encourage them to go for STI checkups.
It is the role of government to put in place youth-friendly policies. Policy makers should stop the misconception that when they deny young people SRH services they will discourage them from engaging in sex.
We should also provide youth-friendly clinical services by establishing mechanisms that allow young people to be involved in designing and implementing youth SRH programs.
David Kafamba, of Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoekerung (DSW), deals with SRH education for youth in Uganda. He says a high proportion of young people use the private sector for SRH services.
Kafamba, who was among the team that developed a toolkit for educating 10 to 14-year-olds on SRH entitled How to reach young adolescents, says peer education is key because it makes it easier for young people to communicate about SRH services, as well as to access and participate in them and to sustain their attendance long term.