Celebrating change-makers: meet Monica, teaching girls about their sexual health in Uganda

Monica talking to girls about sexual and reproductive health rights © Girl Up Initiative Uganda

As part of our change-maker series, we’re profiling Monica Nyiraguhabwa’s work to empower girls in Uganda through sexual education.

While she was growing up, Monica faced economic hardship and discrimination. A tough adolescence in an impoverished slum of Kampala opened her eyes to the injustice of being a girl in Uganda.

Many adolescent girls in Uganda are pressured into having sex at a young age. With little access to sexual and reproductive health education, it is not uncommon for girls to become pregnant and drop out of school. Marriage all too often follows.

Monica became determined to change this. In 2012 she co-founded Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) to teach girls about their sexual and reproductive health. Helping girls understand their bodies, she thought, would help them understand their rights. Their right to say no to sexual advances and to marry on their own terms.

Child marriage in Uganda

Monica’s mission is not an easy one. An estimated 40% of girls in Uganda are married before 18, and 10% of girls are married before 15. The causes of child marriage in Uganda are complex and diverse: teenage pregnancy, bride price, as well as limited access to education.

The “sugar daddy” phenomenon, wherein girls form relationships with older men in exchange for food, clothing or money to cover their school fees, can lead to marriage. While many relationships are consensual, they are driven by poverty and power dynamics that fundamentally constrain girls’ choices (ODI, 2014).

Conflict is also at play, with the legacy of the Lord’s Resistance Army causing unrest. Girls displaced by the conflict may face the prospect of marriage in refugee camps, as parents assume it will protect them. Some of the girls Monica counsels became mothers during the insurgency.

The adolescent girls programme group participating in an advocacy march during 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence in November 2016.

“Me and my changing body”

Against this challenging background, Monica runs “Me and my Changing Body”, a session of her Adolescent Girls Training Programme that empowers girls with the tools and knowledge to understand their bodies, assert their needs and become leaders in their community.

Monica tells of girls who are afraid when they start menstruating because they have never been told it will happen. Thanks to the programme, girls learn about what happens to their bodies during puberty and how to manage those changes. Rose, 12, explains:

“I have learnt that menstruation does not mean that I am ready for sex”.

The curriculum also dispels common myths about sex, instead teaching girls about pregnancy and how to avoid becoming a teenage mother. Positive body image and self-esteem are at the core of the programme too. When girls believe in themselves, they are more able to make their own choices and say no to unwanted sexual advances.

The course wouldn’t be complete without lessons on gender inequality and violence against women. Girls are taught the critical skills to detect and deal with problems they, or other schoolmates, face.

Child marriage and sexual rights

Adolescent girls are often not in a position to negotiate safe and consensual sex, especially if they are married or in relationships with older men. They rarely know that contraception exists, where to get it or that they even need it.

According to UNFPA, 33% of girls in Uganda have children before the age of 18. Complications from pregnancy are the second leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the developing world.

By teaching girls about their rights and bodies, Monica hopes to break the cycle of marriage and teenage pregnancy, and empower girls to make decisions about their own lives.

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