Girls find their voices through “Listen To Me” clubs in grassroots communities in Uganda

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From a small, slummy village in the outskirts of Kisowera in Kawempe division, on the boundary of Kampala and Wakiso district in Uganda, many adolescent girls spend the whole day sleeping. Why? Because from 6pm in the evening, this small town begins to fill up with young girls in search of survival benefits. Few girls in this area go to school, and those who do so are usually pulled out due to unwanted pregnancies before they graduate and others end up with severe complications due unsafe abortions and sometimes deaths before they turn 18.

But Majorine has different plans for her future. She wants to be a lawyer in order to defend the rights of young people in courts of law whose rights will be violated. Asked why she felt that way, after some minutes of silence, Majorine narrated how she had lost her 16-year-old close friend, who was orphaned and who had HIV but was practising positive living. Her friend was engaging in commercial sex and had failed to raise the 400,000 Uganda shillings she needed to pay for her abortion, the amount demanded by an old lady for the abortion herbs.

As she did not have anywhere to turn to, and not even knowing the owner of the pregnancy, nor having the money that the old lady had asked for, she resorted to piecing her uterus using a sharp metallic instrument – as was advised by one of her six roommates, although another had advised her that it was cheaper to buy capsules and then go for “cleansing the inside” (post-abortion care). She had died from this unsafe abortion.

Majorine was elected as the chairperson of her college’s LISTEN TO ME SRHR club, established by the Community Health Rights Network (COHERINET), where young people get information and are empowered to be the champions of their own sexual and reproductive health and related rights. With four LISTEN TO ME clubs established this year, we have observed that many of the young girls and boys who have participated in the discussions thought that human rights were meant for politicians who were against the ruling governments, to prevent them from being harassed.

Girls did not know that they should have the right to control what happens with their own bodies, their sexuality and reproduction. We realized that students should not only be taught about biology and the basics of sex education, but also about harmful gender norms that may threaten their health and safety. Our aim is for Majorine and other girls to always be in a position to speak up and to question the status quo about their rights.

During the discussion on the attitudes of men and boys in the communities, Majorine said: “When I become a lawyer I will team up with others to change their old-fashioned mentalities. Not only child marriage and abandonment, that are very common in communities, but other forms of violence against women and girls are as well.” When one male student participant commented: “Girls should also be careful about what they wear to avoid harassment, rape and other forms of abuse by men,” Majorine and other girls shouted in objection: “It is not what we girls or women wear that causes rape, harassment and other forms of sexual abuse. Even girls and women who are covered are attacked. Haven‘t you always watched that on television?”

Esther, another participant, declared that: “Women and girls should not die of unsafe abortions anymore! Some of us are still very young and have dreams, like Majorine. To continue school and go to university, to become a medical professional who will help girls and women to abort safely without hesitation or demand exorbitant amounts. Why can’t the government provide at least abortion pills, that we hear rich women and girls from well-off families use? How many girls are dying silently due unsafe abortions; how many will never bear a child due to complications of unsafe abortions, how many have left their homes and villages due abortion stigma? When will it ever end and who should end it anyway?”.

COHERINET hopes the effects are felt beyond the school clubs as students use these same skills in their communities to sensitize men and boys as well as girls about their rights. Their confidence must be built up, to speak to crowds made up of men and boys, community leaders, policy makers and other stakeholders without being afraid. Through the LISTEN TO ME clubs, we seek to teach girls that their voices must be heard, including those in schools and communities with less access to internet and smart phones.

SOURCE + PHOTO: E-mail from COHERINET, 20 October 2016