Every evening on Luuka road in the eastern district of Iganga, about 50 young mothers and girl-child school dropouts gather at the Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents (ELA) clubhouse.
At the clubhouse, the mothers and girls read books and make new friends as they struggle to get their lives back on track. Annet Naisanga, 16, is one such girl trying to regain a normal quality life.
She goes to the club to read and play with her friends. She was defiled and impregnated by a 25-year-old man who ran away the very moment he realised he would serve jail time for committing the capital offence.
COMPETING FOR CARE
Coming from a poor family of five children meant that Naisanga had to compete for care with her school-going siblings despite being pregnant. Even after giving birth to Anisha, the teenage mother still struggles to find basic needs like good food for her one-year-old daughter. “The care reduced when my parents realised I was pregnant.
They no-longer cared that much and even sent me away to stay with my grandmother but she also can’t provide everything because she is not doing well financially,” Naisanga said as she got a hold of Anisha who was trying to clutch at my notebook.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that one in four teenage girls (about 700,000) have either got pregnant or had a child.
Very few complete school and 68 per cent of teenage girls between 15 and 19 have never set foot in a secondary school. About 51 per cent (4.3 million) of Uganda’s adolescents are girls but many of them face vulnerabilities like child marriage, pregnancies and violence.
Further, of the 110,000 adolescents infected with HIV/Aids, the highest prevalence is among girls at 66 per cent. Although she made it to secondary school, Harriet Mutesi didn’t get past senior three. Her poor parents couldn’t afford the school fees of Shs 40,000 per term.
Mutesi said since she joined the club earlier this year, her life has changed because she now hopes she may continue with her education. Unlike Naisanga who wants to learn hairdressing and tailoring, Mutesi hopes to continue with her secondary education and make it to university.
“I really want to study but my guardians cannot afford to pay such huge amounts of school fees. My wish is that I get a sponsor so that I can be able to achieve my dream of being a nurse,” Mutesi said as she excitedly moved her black pawn to replace her colleague’s white on the chess board.
Because many girls are struggling to stay in school, UNFPA and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) decided to start the Better Life for Girls (BL4G) project. Implemented by BRAC Uganda, BL4G has transformed many lives across the 14 districts in the eastern and Karamoja regions.
These include districts like Bududa, Katakwi Iganga, Amuria, Kaabong, Butaleja and Kotido. By the end of 2016, 22,459 girls aged between 10 and 19 were enrolled in (ELA) clubs and 1,010 of these have already started their own income-generating activities.
Margret Namukuve, the project assistant with BRAC Uganda, said ever since an ELA club was formed in Bwanalila village, the number of recruits has grown. Fifty girls joined the club within three months of its formation, and Namukuve is certain they will have over 90 girls by the end of September this year.
“Every day after doing their chores the teenage mothers and girls who dropped out of school come here for sessions with counsellors. The parents, especially mothers, support it because they say it makes their daughters occupied and avoid bad company,” Namukuve said.
Apart from empowering teenage mothers with skills, BL4G also aims to keep girls in school by providing menstrual hygiene management support. So far, 756 schools (670 primary and 86 secondary) have been supported and now have functional safe spaces with senior women/men teachers trained in counselling and referrals.
FREE SANITARY PADS
Hellen Akisaati, a primary seven pupil at Bugadde primary school, Mayuge district, is part of the 70 girls that use the safe spaces and have received UNFPA’s reusable sanitary pads at no cost.
Unlike in the past when she used to skip school during her menstrual periods, the 14-year-old is no longer afraid since she has been taught how to handle body changes.
The safe space at Bugadde has cleaning items like a basin, water, soap, changing dresses and material for making temporary pads. In case of an abrupt start of the menstrual period, the girls can rush there and tidy up, make emergency pads out of cloth and wool, that’s if they forgot to carry their free re-usable pads.
The reusable pads can be used for close to two years if properly handled. Mary Awinjo, the Bugadde primary senior woman teacher, remembers that before the introduction of safe spaces, the school had a problem because many girls dropped out.
Most of the girls would shy away and some would even fail to participate in co-curricular activities which affected their performance.
“Before we received free pads, girls would not be active at all and they would only say “I’m sick.” But ever since we introduced the safe spaces, they have changed. The girls are now highly protected,” says Awinjo.
Adding; “Those with complications are allowed to rest in the safe space but if the complications like abdominal pains don’t reduce, we refer them to Kyityerera health centre.”
Akisaati is among the 52,920 school-going girls who have received menstrual hygiene management support since last year. More money, $587,000, has been earmarked for procurement of reusable pads and training of school-based clubs on how to make re-usable pads.
Joab Buyinza, the in-charge of Malongo health centre III, said because of the referral system, many teenagers now throng the clinic for services. Despite being a six-bed facility, it serves over seven schools in the vicinity.
Some 498 health personnel from 153 health facilities have trained in youth-friendly services in both Karamoja and the eastern region since 2016. These have helped extend services like STI/HIV testing, antenatal care and family planning to 131,421 adolescent girls.
Buyinza said the numbers of adolescents visiting the health centre has doubled and more have started getting services like counselling and STI testing, among others. The facility has a special Thursday when youths are given priority and on such days, over 100 throng the centre.
To consolidate the gains of BL4G projects of keeping girls in school, men associations have been mobilized to lead social change in the two regions of Eastern and Karamoja where girls face the gravest vulnerabilities. Currently there are 140 male action groups and they have conducted 280 dialogues in their communities.
A 15-member group, Male Action Group (MAG), is one such group and it has greatly helped reduce defilement and teenage pregnancies in Bukatuube subcounty, Mayuge district.
According to Moses Kato, the MAG chairperson, they have a representative in each of the 15 parishes who works with police to identify those abusing adolescent girls.
“Most of the teenage mothers we talked to wanted to go back to school and we managed to convince some parents to take them back and they are performing well. So far because of our effort, 66 girls have gone back to school,” boasts Kato.
MAG has also helped identify and work with police to apprehend defilers and taught parents the importance of keeping girls in school.
The 140 groups have been able to dialogue with over 4,420 parents on ending teenage pregnancies and keeping girls in school. The BL4G project will continue improving adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
Although the project ends in December 2018, another phase could be considered to consolidate earlier gains of keeping girls in school.