Ajabo Catherine, a 13-year-old Primary Five pupil of Buruguyi primary school in Bugiri District almost lost a chance to stay in school when her father decided to marry her off to an older man in her village.
This happened after her father had divorced her mother. Ajabo became the woman of the house and would miss school sometimes to prepare food and cultivate her mother’s garden.
Her teacher, Ryamwenge Feriaster, who is also the matron of the school noticed the irregular school attendance and a change in behavior. She talked to the deputy head teacher, Kitimbu Rukia who secretly went to the girl’s home to find out what had happened.
Ajabo revealed to her about her father’s plans to have her married, Mrs Kitimbu advised her to report to the police. Her father was arrested and she was allowed to go back to school.
Child marriage, teenage pregnancy, sexual and gender based violence, child labor, financial constraints, menstrual hygiene challenges are some of the reasons why most children drop out of school in Uganda.
Most of these challenges prevail because the affected persons/children don’t have a trusted person they can talk or report to and because of the secrecy that society has treated such issues with.
It is upon this background that 8 NGOs under the Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Alliance Uganda (SRHR) with funding from the Netherlands and support from Ministry of Health introduced the Get Up Speak Out (GUSO), a sexual reproductive awareness program in 40 primary schools and 20 secondary school in 4 districts of Iganga, Bugiri, Mayuge and newly created Bugweri with an aim of combating the above vices through information sharing and building strong cooperation between teachers, pupils and communities.
According to Bush Ocean, the Straight Talk Foundation program coordinator for Bugiri and Iganga districts, the alliance chose Busoga region for the 5-year program ending in 2020, because the region has the highest rates of sexual reproductive health (SRH) related challenges
“Statistics indicate that the Busoga region faces the highest rate of SRH challenges, scoring higher than the national average in some. Such as child marriage, and teenage pregnancies, HIVAIDS prevalence, SGBV, menstrual hygiene challenges, and forced marriage among others. This is why our funders and government thought it wise to concentrate in Busoga region,” he says.
The program he says received some resistance, but with time, there has been a lot of support with communities, religious leaders, teachers and pupils all working together to ensure that every child, teenage receives support as they grow into responsible adults
“At first, GUSO like many sexuality education projects was being misunderstood as sex education, it is sexuality education and sexuality is broader and covers the very essence of human existence it is how we choose to express ourselves. Today, parents’ involvement and attitudes have shifted in a positive way. Support has been generated from schools through formation of parents’ committees which now is involved in sexuality education in schools, there is also sustainability team made up of parents and teachers to ensure sustainability of the program in school,” he states.
“They seek to find ways to support the project and also ensure pupils are beings assisted in school through peer to peer, youth corner, and teachers’ guidance and counselling as well as referral to the health facilities. There has also been significant increase in learners’ enrolment in schools. This has been attributed to the friendliness the school environment which supports young people’s experiences in school. The support they receive has ensured many are retained in school and those who had left have returned including those who had dropped out due to teenage pregnancies/ forced marriage. The confidence of learners too has been elevated, due to more frequent interactions during GUSO activities and development on soft skills.”
Kisedere Phillip, a peer educator at Bunyama Primary school says being a GUSO student leader has changed his life and enhanced his relationship with his parents, teachers and fellow pupils
“I feel empowered to speak out on any challenge I face. I am also helping my fellow pupils by telling them about dangers of early sex, bad touches and what to do when they are faced with such challenges” he says
Kisedere, and other boys at the different schools we visited like have also been helping in making reused pads for girls who they consider as their sisters that need support
Chwara Emmanuel, an S3 student at Iganga Parents S.S who is a GUSO Monitor says his perception of Menstrual periods has positively changed and has been helping girls to feel more comfortable in school
“In addition to helping out with the making of reusable pads, I understand that this is a nature occurrence and no girl should feel shamed or uncomfortable because they are in their periods. Also in our peer groups we talk to girls about what their menstrual periods imply and how to keep safe from getting pregnant and HIV/AIDS,” he says
Acheng Jenipher, a 15-year-old primary seven pupil at Buruguyi primary school says that she feels more comfortable to make friends with boys and her teachers and no longer has to stay home during her periods because the school has created a conducive environment. I addition, she says the hard work she is being taught will be used in future to earn a living
Despite the successes, school heads say they are having financial challenges in implementing some areas of the program especially connecting pupils that need medical attention to hospitals which are very far and need transportation to get to them
“Also the Safe Space where girls can change their clothing in case of menstrual hygiene challenge or resting is limited. We are using the same room for girls and boys which doubles as a sickbay. We also lack a proper resting place, we have only one old mattress,” said, Nyiro Juliet Flavia, the assistant matron Buyama primary school
Charles Owekmeno National Programs Coordinator SRHR, says that such programs are necessary and need to be extended to other regions if sexual reproductive challenges are going to be fully addressed
“Uganda’s health sector is not well structured to address the needs the young people and hence they find it hard to seek health information from health facilities. With GUSO, young people are connected to health facilities with special medical personnel that understand their challenges and how to go about them,” he said
SRHR Alliance partners include Reproductive Health Uganda, CEHURD, FLEP, NAFOPHANU, UNYPA, Straight Talk Uganda, and Restless Development