Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum (UYAHF) in partnership with Girls Not Brides Uganda Alliance and She Decides Uganda local movement organized the first of its kind; the Eastern Region Girls’ Summit (ERGS). The summit was organized in celebration of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence and as a satellite event to the 2021 celebration of Equality Now’s Beijing+25. The ERGS was also organized alongside Girls Not Brides Uganda Alliances’ annual National Girls Summit happening in the same week. The ERGS was organized under the theme of “Empowering Girls for a Brighter Future.”
Patrick Mwesigye, Team Leader and Founder of UYAHF, welcomed the participants to the ERGS. He shared about the Eastern Youth Network for SRHR and gender equality which is coordinated by UYAHF and made up of over 20 youth-led organizations from the districts of Mbale, Tororo, and Butalejja such as; Women With A Mission, Mbale Network of Young People Living with HIV, Elite Youth Uganda, Street Ways, African Women Service Trust, Awake Youth Relief Agency and A Little Bit of Hope among others. Since the formation of the Eastern network, several activities have been carried out such as the young mother’s forum in Butalejja, where young mothers shared their experiences and challenges, as well as recommendations for some of the setbacks they had. Several radio talk shows were also held to raise awareness; for young people and adolescents about their Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), community engagements, and the skilling of young people. UYAHF has established its eastern region office in Mbale where the organization offers a wide range of activities for Sexual Reproductive Health Services, counseling to Gender-Based Violence (GBV) victims and HIV/STI Services, and Post-Abortion Care Services at a very small cost and urged members to refer youth from their communities. Patrick ended his remarks by reassuring members that UYAHF is committed to serving the community, most importantly ending SGBV, especially child marriages, in Uganda.
The DCDO, Mbale-Mellisi Mutonyi applauded UYAHF for kick-starting the launch of the Campaign of the 16 days of Activism against the GBV through the ERGS and also for putting a Youth Centre in Mbale. She pointed out that for a long time her office has been advocating for a safe space for the youth. The youth have unique challenges and as parents, they have neglected their role especially in this COVID 19 lockdown. As parents, we are busy relating and working and not discussing with our young people about sex and Sexuality Education so that they can sort out what is good and what is bad. Youth are being exposed to this information, through social media, TV, and radio, and some of this information is incorrect or misleading. This leads to a process of supporting youth to unlearn false information on SRHR.
Additionally, she stated that boys and men also have to be engaged in issues of ending child marriages. COVID-19, sparked off increasing numbers of SGBV cases, for example, there was a girl who was molested by a relative who is in a position of responsibility. The girl is faced now with psyco-social problems as it is now difficult to relate to the opposite sex. She appeals to the different CSOs that as they reach out and empower girls they should empower boys to have an empowered generation.
Senior Probation and Welfare Officer-Harriet Nekesa in her remarks highlighted that as the District, they have organized different activities to be conducted during the Campaign of the 16 days of Activism against GBV jointly with other organizations in Eastern Uganda. They will be starting with the Legal Aid Clinic in Busiu Sub-County conducted by lawyers from FIDA-Uganda and Justice Centres-Uganda. She closed her remark by saying that we need to empower both girls and boys because then we would have helped the entire nation. This should be done by guiding the youth and not blaming them.
District GBV Focal Person-Sister Lilian Anyaku was humbled to be part of the ERGS organized by UYAHF and World Vision. She also pointed out that there have been accelerating cases of Sexual Gender-Based Violence, especially in the COVID 19 lockdown especially domestic violence, child/early marriages, defilement and rape cases, and teenage pregnancies. She appealed to participants to “Speak out against SGBV, respect and promote the rights of children”.
DEO Tororo, Catherine Akong, urged CSOs and Parents and guardians to empower young people to speak out against violations against children. Parents/guardians need to play their role and ensure children are maintained in schools to reduce the skyrocketing rates of teenage pregnancies, child/ early marriages, and reduce the high levels of school dropouts. She also emphasized the importance of parents and guardians to have sex education talks with adolescents and young people to reduce myths and misconceptions about periods and sex.
Remarks from Assistant Health Officer, Butaleja Health Center III, Mr. Kiyemba Nicholas noted that Butaleja has been ranked with the highest number of teenage pregnancies and has registered the highest number of child/early marriages especially this COVID 19 Lockdown. Butaleja has the youngest grandmother in the world. As the district, they have committed to fighting child/ early marriages. Notably, CAO’s office in Butaleja has been so supportive to ensure progress towards the accessibility and availability of SRHR and services among young women and adolescent girls and creating demand for SRHR and services in Butaleja District.
Ms. Nakyegera Norah, Advocacy and Campaign Officer made a presentation about the evidence-based research they carried out in the Mbale district titled rapid assessment on young people’s experiences, challenges, and best practices on demand, access, and utilization of contraceptives services and information. With support from HIVOS, UYAHF generated evidence on availability, access, quality, and uptake of youth-friendly services in selected health facilities in Mbale, with a view of providing robust evidence-based information to strengthen adolescent health friendly services in Mbale district. UYAHF chose the Mbale district based on a fertility hotspot report done by FHI-360 and Makerere University School of Public Health which puts Mbale in the middle of districts with very high fertility rates in a region with the highest fertility rates. Additionally, with the high youth population of the Mbale district and its role as a transit town. UYAHF intended to study youth indicators in Mbale to better inform its advocacy and programming.
The assessment used both qualitative and quantitative methods to collect data on adolescent health in the district and at health facilities using an array of tools. Specifically, the study team reviewed secondary data from health facility HIMS records, DHIS2 database, administered a structured questionnaire aligned to the WHO health standards for adolescents and the national adolescent health quality of care standards, conducted focus-group discussions at the community level with adolescents, and key informant interviews with key district health personnel drawn from Mbale district.
According to the research, there are a couple of challenges faced by young people in accessing services. Adolescents reported that although they received some resemblance of adolescent-friendly services at some health centers, most of the health facilities did not have structures to offer for privacy, it is often harder to see adolescents in the clinic during the day than it is in the evening hours even during holidays due to fear, it was observed that adolescents would wait for long hours in the queue for services, that there was little knowledge on how to use condoms or other contraceptives, that they experienced discrimination, and that there were communication challenges for persons with disabilities such as with a hearing impairment.
Recommendations on how to deal with the challenges include:
1. In-service training for Health Workers, specifically in adolescent health
2. Integration of adolescent services with sexual reproductive health rights
3. Revitalization and intensification of school health outreaches and programs
4. Community-based programs that are focused on adolescents and young people
5. Extra support and mentorship are needed for rural and lower-level health facilities.
6. More efforts to lobby partners to support lower health facilities and rural ones
7. District and health facility managers to plan, budget, and equip health facilities with adolescent health corners and commodities to enhance SRH services for adolescents
8. Deliberate training of all health workers and non-health staff at the health centers to ensure that they adopt adolescent and youth responsiveness in their approaches.
There was a panel of 3 girls and two boys who shared their experiences, challenges, and what opportunities are available for them to leverage on. This session was moderated by the Community Development Officer, Mr. Oguti David. One of the girls mentioned that she had a friend aged 15 years who had confided in her that her parents wanted to marry her off and later this child marriage went ahead. The adolescents mentioned some of the ways in the rights of children are violated such as; the right to education since many of the children are involved in casual labor work to supplement the income for the family, the right to freedom from torture, cruel and degrading treatment as is all to common, especially rape. They concluded their session by sharing innovations that can be used to reduce the rampant cases of violence against adolescents in communities such as; creation of time to discuss with their children about sex and sexuality, guide their children on what is right and not blaming them have self-awareness and learn life skills and values, self-control to overcome the temptation.
Various stakeholders such as CDOs, GBV focal persons, and religious leaders reacted, stating that young people with disabilities face stigma from health workers who make harsh comments like which man dared to have sex with you and make you pregnant. There is a need to create disability awareness on the legal framework.
Parents should also be taking on their roles and responsibilities to advise, guide, and engage their children in sex and sexuality education, pregnant girls especially those in candidate classes should be reinstated back to school. Parents should ensure to provide basic needs to young people like sanitary pads, books, and pens, and pocket money, in some sexual violence cases, parents are bribed to withdraw cases against the perpetrators and this must be stopped through working alongside parents. Religious institutions and faith-based organizations should play their part in sensitizing young people on SRHR information.
Edward Hawuka, the Eastern Regional Coordinator, gave a brief background about World vision. Their goal is to ensure children are cared for, safe, and protected from violence. They currently operate in 51 districts in Uganda. 31 years ago they launched a campaign called “It takes the World” to protect the children from violence. It involved a range of activities like awareness creation through dialogues in communities, police and family engagements, and advocating for legal and policy change. Mr. Hawuka called upon the government to invest more in community departments as they deal with a lot of psycho-social issues. He urged participants to say no to child marriages, violence against children, and child sacrifices. He concluded by calling upon Mr. Madoyi Elijah, RDC, Butaleja, and Asemenyi Suzan, CAO, Tororo, to sign their commitment and launch their campaign in Eastern Uganda.
Mr. Mwesigye Patrick shared with the participants about the Suubi Helpline, which is an information, support, and referral service for ANYONE in Uganda who needs support with sexual and reproductive health, sexual and gender-based violence, pro-bono legal advice, post-rape care, and social-psychological support. The Suubi Helpline operates 24/7 helpline and is operated by trained counselors once can either send a text message, call, beep, or send a Whatsapp message. He later called upon Mr. Madoyi Elijah, RDC, Butaleja, and Asemenyi Suzan, CAO, Tororo, to launch the helpline in Eastern Uganda.
Asemenyi Suzan, Chief Administrative Officer, Tororo in her closing remarks appreciated UYAHF for organizing the ERGS and emphasized the importance of engaging youth on issues that affect them to find realistic solutions. She called upon all the partners present to incorporate GBV in all the different programs that they undertake and prioritize gender sensitivity.
Madoyi Elija, RDC Butalejja informed the participants that SGBV cases escalated during the COVID lockdown causing psycho-social problems. The lockdown has highlighted that parents neglected their role of parenting and they are too busy for their children, many have left their children to visit relatives which turn out not to be a safe space for their children. We need to engage the young people, community, teachers, and parents on their mandate to play in the upbringing of children and also the children on their responsibilities too. Report cases of SGBV and GBV to the RDC where police have failed or refused to carry out their work due to corruption. He finished with: ‘I will follow up these cases because I am the head of the security team at a district’. Mr. Madoyi Elija called the meeting to an end after his submission.