Anna Tyor, Restless Development’s US Philanthropy Manager, spent some time this past summer meeting young people involved in our sexual health and reproductive rights programs in Uganda. Below are stories from young people she met on the My Voice, My Rights program in Jinja, Uganda.
His name is Owen. He’s 10 years-old and lives in Mayuge, a district in Eastern Uganda, where the river Nile meets Lake Victoria. Mayuge has a largely rural population with just over 380,000 people from a variety of tribal and religious backgrounds with most of its residents working in the informal sector, as fishermen.
Around 7.2% of the population has HIV compared to a rate of .01% in the US (CDC, 2015). Mayuge also has high teenage pregnancy rates, some of these young mothers are unaware that they have contracted HIV and unknowingly pass the infection to their children.
Restless Development Uganda has an office in the neighboring district of Jinja, from where we lead a number of programs that focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), in order to face the challenge of HIV and teenage pregnancy.
One of this programs is My Voice, My Rights, through which Restless Development’s staff works closely with teachers to deliver training sessions on SRHR topics like gender, menstrual hygiene, STIs, and especially the prevention of HIV-AIDS.
Owen and his peers attend one of the schools where My Voice, My Rights has been working on for the last 2 years.
Changing minds is a slow process.
In Uganda, an estimated 1.5 million people were living with HIV as of 2015. From 2000-2013, Uganda’s HIV rates were increasing at over 20%, while rates were falling in many other countries throughout the world. AIDS was also the second most common cause of death among adolescents, estimated at 300 deaths a day.
During those years, the government and wider international community implemented a robust number of treatment and prevention initiatives. The increasing rates of HIV seem to indicate that these measures were failing, but in 2015 infections began to significantly fall, from 140,000 in 2013 to 83,000 by the end of the year.
Many development experts would argue that an investment in SRHR education and services have contributed to a drop in HIV-AIDS rates.
But most of people in Mayuge, Owen’s home district, still have trouble accessing SRHR services due to a number of challenges including the absence of a safe space for young people to access health services, gender inequality and bias, social disconnection between young people and parents, and negative attitudes by adults towards sexual education. Restless Development provides classes in Mayuge on these topics.
One day in the classroom
Owen sits in a small classroom with hundreds of students, silent and eager for the day’s lesson on HIV to begin. Restless Development trained teacher, Salimu, asks in Swahili “Can anyone tell me how to prevent HIV-AIDS?” Owen’s hand shoots up with a number of other students and he is called on; “do not share bodily fluids,” he says proudly in English. Many of the students are excited to boast about how much they’ve learned about HIV-AIDS prevention in class.
Meanwhile, many of the young students line up in the back of the classroom to take a rapid HIV-AIDS test. Some of them are told that they are HIV positive, some of these children contracting the disease from their mothers, unaware that they are also HIV positive.
After class Salimu asks some of the students who have formed their own SRHR Youth Group what their favorite topic is. The students pause to take some time to think, because this is actually a tough question for them. A few of them say “understanding STIs”, Owen says “HIV-AIDS control and prevention”, while the last student answers, “gender!” Everyone laughs.
Breaking the cycle: Youth are the answer.
The teachers and younger peer educators in the My Voice My Rights program are working hard to dispel myths about sexual health in Owen’s classroom, and many other classrooms throughout Uganda. Not only are teachers working to empower students to make informed daily decisions, we are also working to build the capacity of larger youth-led organizations in the area. Team members gather evidence of best SRHR practices, and advocate for these practices through the district and national level government bodies.
Morishied, a 25-year old peer educator in Owen’s classroom, says that his biggest problem is changing minds.
Many of the community members believe that “HIV is not a common disease and it can be easily cured,” says Morishied, “and they say that beautiful people don’t get AIDS.”
Morishied has to first explain that HIV is common, it is serious and, unfortunately, it cannot be cured. He says that “the most difficult task is creating hope.” He must explain that you can live with HIV if you take care of yourself – your life is not over.
Morishied believes that local young people are the answer to ending the epidemic of misinformation. Only young people from their own communities can give their own neighbors both trusted information and hope. He wants those living with HIV to be able to go on to make a business, take care of their families or earn enough money to buy condoms. He wants his students and community members to be armed with education, and equipped with best sexual health practices.
When Morishied is asked how does one end an epidemic, he says without skipping a beat, “Young people have to preach to the world and transfer knowledge, from one person to another person.”