Knowledge is power, it truly is.
Today, most young people in Uganda are denied the power to make informed choices about sexuality, largely because there is little or no information readily available to them. Where information is made available, it is bridled with myths and misconceptions of how contraceptives lead to infertility and other worse complications. Thus, a young person is told to hide their sexuality and there is virtually nowhere for them to seek out accurate information at home or at school. Apart from lacking the conversational space and the channels of information, the legal environment that regulates the rights to sexual and reproductive health in Uganda, and elsewhere, remains fraught with contradictions and contestations. Whereas Ugandan adolescents below the age of 18 have a right to access HIV testing without parental consent, the Penal Code Act 1950 of Uganda lays out that defilement – having sex with someone under the age of 18 – is a punishable criminal offence. This is but one of the discords in the frameworks that deal with adolescents Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in Uganda and beyond.
Added to the challenge of contradicting legal and policy instruments, is that of opposition between today’s delivery of sexuality education to adolescents in Uganda. Various researchers have identified the resistance as entrenched within a moralistic abstinence-only approach hinging on patriarchal norms of female submission and male dominance, and the internationally recognized right to a comprehensive sexuality education that aims to ensure that adolescents are given the information and tools to accomplish full attainment of sexual and reproductive health and rights. More importantly, a feminist lens on the reportedly high-levels of teenage pregnancies, newly attracted HIV-infections among young females, sexual violations constituting the first sexual encounter for Ugandan girls, and unsafe abortions not only speaks to some of the most violently felt consequences of patriarchy on young women’s bodies and autonomy – it screams to us to take immediate action against it.
According to the 2016 Uganda Demographic Health Survey (UDHS, 2016), teenage pregnancy is as high as 25%. That is, one out of four girls below 18 become pregnant. While we do not know the exact numbers for the last two years, it is still evident that Ugandan adolescents are engaging in sex and that contraceptive use is low. The morally and religiously inscribed notion of socially accepted sexuality as that which takes place within a heterosexual, reproductive marriage does not only hide behind these figures of teenage pregnancies and low contraceptive use. It is concurrently the driving force behind the criminalisation of abortion and the subsequent incidence of teenage girls seeking out unsafe abortion to avoid the stigma and vulnerability that comes with teenage motherhood outside wedlock. Teenage motherhood does not only put you to shame in the eyes of the Ugandan community, it also comes with low probability of you being able to attain education and future economic stability. Unsafe abortion, estimated to 314,000 in 2013, is however a high price to pay with permanent health risks, costs, and in the worst-case death, as probable side effects when hangers or other unsafe methods are being used. Looming over this situation is once again how it is girls, not boys, that are stigmatised, burdened, and at great risks because of an unwillingness to accept the reality – adolescents are sexually active and they need access to information and contraceptives to be able to do so safely.
At the face of it one might feel inclined to deem it altogether confusing and without any room for change. But once again, knowledge is power. Sharing of knowledge not only disseminates power, it also multiplies it. Knowing this, the AMwAzons Knowledge Hub session on sexual and reproductive health and rights, attended by a plethora of young women leaders committed to social change, did not come to the conclusion that, after a discussion of aforementioned challenges and complexities, the only thing to do is to idly sit by and wait. Instead it came to the conclusion that the knowledge that this session and space had given to them is going to reach further as they share it with their circles. It came to the conclusion that change starts small and it starts with you. It starts with you removing the ban of naming body parts for sexual and reproductive purposes. It starts with you as a parent, as a teacher, as a friend, as a colleague, and as an activist engaging in open conversations about sexuality, safe sex, and consent.
For me, as a non-Ugandan honoured to attend the insightful Knowledge Hub session on SRHR, I could not stop myself from asking about the absence of the conversation on pleasure and the right to sexual pleasure; something which women are often denied of in the patriarchal order of sexuality. I was told that this, female sexual pleasure, is still unheard of in Uganda. It did not surprise me, as this is largely the case across the globe. However, the statement that came next made a far greater impression on me – “But one day we shall get there!”
Indeed, one day we shall get there. We shall get to the point where there are no more stories of young girls carrying out abortions with hangers, where consensual sex is the only sex that is accepted, where both females and males are given the autonomous right over their sexuality and to sexual, reproductive health, and pleasure. And it starts with us. With someone and something small that flourishes into a collective momentum – with a sisterhood built of young, women leaders of change. That is how we shall get there!
For further reading on the Use of Contraceptives in Uganda, click here.
Compiled by Fanny Rölander
Akina Mama wa Afrika