She was the closest friend I ever had while growing up. With a fairer skin, almond eyes and a warm smile, Jane (not real name) was a beauty to behold. We did everything together. But all this came to an end when my parents sent me to boarding school. Jane wasn’t fortunate enough to go to the above-average schools I went to but she received a basic education.
One day, I came home to a shocking story that my best friend had conceived but didn’t go through with the pregnancy. She had carried out an unsafe abortion that almost cost her life. I remember feeling sorry about her experience but never disappointed in her.
This incident and a pregnancy that followed a year later greatly affected our friendship to the extent that Jane hid from me every time I came home for the holidays. She had her first baby at sixteen, and this was the end of her education journey. She is now a mother to two. For a long time after losing my friend to early motherhood, I started getting curious about sexual and reproductive related issues.
Growing up in a small village in Eastern Uganda gave me firsthand experience living in a community with class divides of the “haves” and the “have-nots”. My family didn’t have much financially, but, my parents believed in investing in their children’s education and this gave me an opportunity to attend some of the best schools in the country. Because many of my age mates couldn’t have what I had at the time, it challenged my thinking at a very tender age. I constantly found myself wondering why some young girls in my neighborhood “decided” to drop out of school while others got married.
The older I grew and learned about sexuality, the better I understood their “decisions” and circumstances. The loss of a childhood best friend to early pregnancy and adolescent motherhood took me on a personal journey to explore ways of inspiring young girls in my village to be like me. I decided to be “different” – and this meant going to school and getting an education that would earn me a reputable career. I would later develop an interest in and practice peer education in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and co-lead a youth non-profit providing young people with platform for mentor-ship, capacity building to connect them to life opportunities. To date, I consider my decision to enroll for a course and acquiring practical experience in peer education about sexual and reproductive health at Reproductive Health Uganda one of the best choices I have ever made in life.
Peer education activities exposed me to some of the harsh realities young Uganda girls face in our societies today. There is a pressing need to educate young people about their sexuality and their bodies. I also learnt that some of the causes of teen pregnancies, unsafe abortions and school dropouts are mainly to lack of knowledge. During one of our open peer education sessions, a lady shared;
“I conceived the first time I attempted to have sex with my boyfriend. I wasn’t ready for this baby,” She was disappointed in herself for not seeking knowledge about sex education earlier. However, I couldn’t blame her. I blamed her mother.
“Mother always threatened to banish me from home if I ever indulged in sexual relations or even get pregnant while still in school.” She added. Her mother had thrown her out of the house but she couldn’t stop blaming herself for ruining the only chance she had of getting an education. The two stories above represent thousands of such many cases of young girls worldwide who have lost brighter futures to early pregnancies, school drop outs, and in even worse cases contracting HIV/AIDS and dying.
My country, Uganda, the African continent, and the world in general needs to change their perceptions about education of the young generation about sex education, their bodies and reproductive health related issues, especially girls. The world we are growing up in today is very different from that of our parents’ and our grandparents, who set these taboos society is bent to. Compared to 20 years ago, young people are entering adolescence earlier and healthier, and they are likely to spend more time in school and enter the workforce later. As a result, marriage and childbearing now generally occur later than they did in the past, especially for women. And, inevitably, postponing marriage has meant that sex before marriage has become more common.
According to a Guttmacher Institute report entitled: Protecting the Next Generation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Learning from Adolescents to Prevent HIV and Unintended Pregnancy; adolescent females in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to have sex at an earlier age than their male counterparts, and thus are at particular risk fosr HIV, unwanted pregnancy and other adverse outcomes. In a survey conducted in Burkina Faso, Malawi, Ghana, and Uganda, almost 60% of females have had sex by age 18, compared with about 40–45% of males.
A recent discovery in Uganda reveals that unsafe abortions as the second leading cause of maternal deaths in the country. The reality is that society needs to focus on empowering the young generation, especially girls with education, trainings and all comprehensive knowledge about sexual, reproductive health and family planning for young mothers.
To add my voices to and for the young girls and youth out there that cannot make the right choices for their bodies, I have joined the global advocacy movement. I believe that my voice, with voices of us all combined can make case for the young girls who have fallen victims of early motherhood, unsafe abortions and even forced sexual relations because they couldn’t defend themselves.
I started out as a fun student, and later a peer educator. There is no fun and inspiring thing I have ever done than telling fellow young people about their reproductive rights, bodies and how they should protect themselves from unsafe sex or unplanned pregnancies. There was something about someone walking to me and asking for more condoms (we used to distribute female and male condoms during peer education sessions) or even just calling to clarify about a certain contraceptive they weren’t sure about. It’s fulfilling.
It’s not too late for you to join the movement. Take a stand this International Women’s Day. Look back at what denial of access to basic sexual and reproductive health education has caused to human development. If you join us now, to commit and ensure that every girl wherever they are gets appropriate, accurate and comprehensive information on sexuality on time, we can still make sure that the young generation maximizes their potential to achieve their dreams without limits. It’s not too late for you to join.
You can sign a pledge of a campaign like this one, join movements making case for the rights of girls from obstacles like early child marriages and school drop outs like this one or join coalitions working together on a common agenda for adolescents and young people to acquire comprehensive sex education and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services that will strengthen our national, regional and international responses to early and unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and school drops for the brighter future of young women.
Happy International Women’s Day!
This post originally was originally posted here