As a Restless Development volunteer, I was part of a team implementing the Get Up, Speak Out (GUSO) programme in Uganda.
Get Up Speak Out Â (GUSO) is a sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education programme. It aims to empower young people – especially girls and young women – to realise their sexual and reproductive rights.
Busiya Parent’s Primary School has about 800 pupils and is in Jinja district. The school identified problems with school dropouts and absences, particularly among girls, related to menstruation and teenage pregnancy.
The staff had difficulty communicating with pupils about these issues, particularly as often pupils were too shy to speak to them when they had problems.
Mutesi Martha, a GUSO coordinator in the school, spoke to me about the ways in which the programme has had a positive impact.
â€œSince GUSO began teaching in the school in Spring 2017, the relationship between pupils and staff has become friendlierâ€, Martha explained.
â€œBefore, pupils would be very shy and hide their problems, but now they approach staff to confide in them and ask for help.
This has created a positive atmosphere in the school.â€
I witnessed this increase in confidence myself as a volunteer teaching the GUSO curriculum to the Primary 5 class. Â The GUSO curriculum covers key topics such as puberty, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and how to say no to unwanted sexual advances. GUSO focuses on empowerment, placing self-confidence, assertiveness and positivity at the heart of lessons.
Pupils who were too shy to answer a question at the beginning were volunteering to read answers in front of the class by the end of term. Â
According to Martha, the best thing about GUSO is the lessons on menstruation. In her community, disposable sanitary pads are too expensive for families to afford. This leads to problems of poor sanitation and embarrassment for girls – many of whom end up skipping school during their period as a result.
Through the classes pupils learn that menstruation is normal and pupils are taught to make reusable sanitary pads. Martha described how these pads are a direct solution to the problems of poor menstrual hygiene and stigma, as they are affordable.
The classes mean the girls are now less embarrassed by menstruation and boys have learned not to make fun of them.
Martha highlighted an important change in the school. Pupils have become empowered to defend themselves and speak out for their rights. She told me of a girl in Primary 7 whose parents said that they could not afford to keep her in school and she would have to get married.
Because she had been taught the GUSO curriculum, she knew that early marriage was illegal, that she had a right to education, and also that she could report this to the school. As a result she is still studying in school today.
This story illustrates the positive life-changing potential of the GUSO programme. I also spoke to two pupils who are part of the Agents4Change club about how GUSO has impacted their lives:
Faith, age 13:
â€œI’m going to tell you a story about my life. I had three boyfriends. They used to give me money. I used to spend that money on treating myself, but when the GUSO members came they told me the dangers of accepting free gifts. When the boys came back I told them, â€˜No. I won’t accept your money anymore.’ Now I live a peaceful and happy life.â€
Faith learned that men in the area often give gifts or money and expect sex in return, which is especially dangerous for young girls because of risks of violence, HIV and pregnancy, and so she left that vulnerable situation.
Students listen into the Dance4Life event – an inspiring afternoon of dance and sexual and reproductive health and rights education taught through drama (Credit: Helen Smith)The classes talked about consent and sexual rights. Ruth,aged 12, felt that boys in the class “bad touched” her – touching her in a sexual way without permission:
â€œI’m going to tell you a story about my life. One day I had a boyfriend. He used to bad touch me on the breasts. When the GUSO members had yet come I knew nothing about bad touches.â€ Â
Consent is explained to the children with the concept of â€˜bad touches’, when someone touches another person without their permission. With this knowledge Ruth was able to exercise her right to consent, as she explains, â€œBut when GUSO came they told us about bad touches. When the boy came back I told him, â€œNo. Don’t bad touch me!â€ Now, we are friends.â€
These stories further highlight how GUSO is actively empowering young people to stand up for their rights.
Martha expressed a desire to engage the parents in dialogues about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The Agents4Change club, coordinated by Martha, plans to address the parents at Â termly parents meetings. By presenting workshops on SRHR issues they can start an inter-generational dialogue.
This is yet another way that GUSO continues to empower the young people of Busiya to speak out for their rights, and creates a supportive environment for young people to thrive.
By Helen Smith, with thanks to Mutesi Martha and Kiwudhu Abbey. Some names have been changed to protect identities.
For more information on the Get Up, Speak Out project visit our website