There is one simple transgression that can rob young people of responsibility, happiness and future opportunity. So poorly understood, this act is nonetheless silent but extremely common: lack of knowledge about sexual and reproductive health (SRHR).
At this very moment, in all four corners of this country, a young girl is either having an abortion or living to the terms of an unwanted pregnancy, one is being forced into marriage, the other is having unprotected sex and one has just learnt that she has contracted the HIV virus.
For most of the history in Uganda, young people have made life choice decisions simply because of cultural practices, ignorance and because of stereotypes associated with their ages.
I witnessed this last Saturday during the inter-generational dialogue organized by Reach a Hand Uganda (RAHU) at the National Water and Sewage Corporation (NWSC) International Resource Center. There is a problem we are facing but giving it little attention.
It is from that problem that we need to start a new conversation about sexual and reproductive health among young people countrywide instead of burying our heads in the sand like ostriches thinking that all is well.
Let’s look at the statistics from the dialogue. The median age of sex debut in Uganda is 16.7 years (which is among the lowest in the world). Even then, you will get shocked to find that 43% of those are already sexually active by 15 years and 62% of those are already sexually active by 19 years.
On the other hand, we have the highest HIV prevalence among the young people in this region (East Africa) of 3.7%. Of those, it is even girls who are most affected. The rate for boys is at 2.1% (15-24 years) and for the females stands at 4.9%.
Hold your peace, that is not all. 24% of girls between 14-18 years are giving birth to children yet they are also still children. 49% of girls below the age of 18 years are married off and 15% of these, are below the age of 15 years of age!
We must pause and reflect where we are going as a country!
But again, it is not the statistics that we should get worried about but the consequences out of the factors that give rise to those statistics.
Young girls are at a very high risk of death and permanent injuries both psychological and physical. These risks include high maternal mortality rates (which in Uganda stand at 430 deaths out of 1000 births, one of the highest in the world), fistula, depression, psychological torture, oppression and low self-esteem for the rest of their lives.
This is the generation we pride ourselves in as being the youth capital of the world since the youth population stands at 78% of the total population whereby also 65% of the above are below the age of 15 years.
I repeat, we must reflect where we are going as a country.
We are in great danger if we don’t do much to end the HIV prevalence among the young people. We are in great danger if almost half of this generation is living in depression. We are in great danger if young people do not have knowledge about the life choices they are making and above all, we are in great danger if we are forgetting that the youth bulge we are having today, will be the old generation bulge thirty years from now.
But again, am not here as a prophet of doom nor masquerading as a wise man from the east but as a young person who believes that even with the challenges we are having, something can be done.
To start with, I will applaud the fellow young people at Reach a Hand Uganda for starting these conversations which are solution oriented. It is gratifying to see young people making a difference to advocate for the rights of young people.
It is from such dialogues that we seek to understand and at the same time understood then empower ourselves with knowledge relating to sexual and reproductive health.
To quote Dr. John Charles Orach, he said that “what we are, you are but where we are, you may never be”, this symbolizes the fact that older people are custodians of knowledge whom we should look out to for guidance.
The old people on the other hand, should be willing to listen and understand the changes we have today in society. Young people today view problems and solutions different from what the old people do. Therefore we need to create linkages of how we must understand each other and empower ourselves.
In conclusion because conclude I must, young people do not have knowledge about sexual and reproductive health. They do not know their rights and the policies we have today are not helping. We must include young people in dialogues about the same topic, listen to them. That is the first step to reducing the risks associated with SRHR today.