Being a young woman living with HIV, and an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights, l have experienced and witnessed violence against young girls and women.
In Uganda and beyond, women still struggle and pay for the side effects of inequity and violence. Being a young woman living with HIV, and an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights, l have experienced and witnessed violence against young girls and women. This can take the form of sexual abuse, rape, genital mutilation, coerced early marriage, stigma and discrimination.
A new study by the Population Council shows that young people in Uganda continue to hold inequitable attitudes towards gender roles and rights. And the research reveals, perhaps surprisingly, that in some cases, young women have less equitable views about gender roles than young men.
The survey of 960 young people aged between 10 and 24 in Wakiso and Kampala gives a detailed insight into their attitudes towards relationships, sexual decision-making and violence.
Acceptance of violence
One of the issues the research highlights is a high level of tolerance among young women towards gender-based violence. Of the young women interviewed, 72 per cent said women should tolerate violence in order to keep their family together, compared to 61 per cent of young men. The proportion of young women who said it was alright for a man to beat his wife if she was unfaithful (41 per cent) was also higher than young men (33 per cent).
Eileen Yam, from Population Council, said: “We know that societal acceptance of harmful, inequitable gender norms can severely limit women’s and girls’ ability to negotiate safe sex, access health care services, achieve their educational goals, and so forth. It’s critical that we work to change people’s mindsets about how women and men are supposed to behave.”
The research also shows that adolescents and young people feel that it’s the role of men to make decisions on how and when to have sex, and that contraception is a woman’s responsibility. This is in a context where girls are denied a formal education, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women face discrimination, and in general women face difficulties accessing contraception and are expected to do the majority of the household chores.
Women must know their rights
However, another important finding of the study is that most respondents did not think sex education encouraged young people to have sex earlier.
According to Link Up, a project to improve young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, many young women face violence and discrimination simply because they do not have enough information about their rights. It follows then, that empowering young women with integrated sexual and reproductive health services – including education – is one of the best ways of reducing gender inequality.
Allen Kyendikuwa, an advocate from the Link Up project, explains that building young women’s knowledge and skills is vital because it reduces their dependence on men.
She said: “Over-dependence on men puts young women in a vulnerable situation of not being able to fully demand their rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as human rights such as demanding safer sex and studying up to university level.”
Access to healthcare and education
All women need quality healthcare and access to sexual and reproductive education. According to the young peer educators from Link Up, a friendly environment for accessing services such as safe abortion, contraception, HIV testing, counselling and treatment are priorities for girls and young women.
Link Up has stressed the need for equity by empowering young women to know and exercise their rights. In programming, Link Up has also engaged men in integrating gender equity into existing HIV programmes and engaged women, men and transgender people in implementing activities.
Gracias Atwiine, from Community Health Alliance Uganda, who advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights for key populations affected by HIV on behalf of Link Up, said: “Engaging women in leadership and embedding women’s rights into the sustainable development goals is one way of amplifying their voices on the experiences they face. It can also help create an environment where women can access health services like antenatal care, and HIV services.”
Keeping girls in school and educating them on sexual and reproductive rights and cultural gender imbalances should increase demand for prevention methods, such as condoms, and help women negotiate safer sex.
I believe every girl should have a good education, free from coercion or threats of violence, so that they can enjoy career choices. It should be every person’s desire to see greater investment in girls because it works. It also opens opportunities for young women to engage in leadership and make their voices heard.