IGANGA, Uganda—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.


Annet was defiled and impregnated by a 25-year-old man who ran away when 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 Annet had to compete for care with her school-going siblings, despite being pregnant. After giving birth to Anisha, the teenaged mother struggled to find basic needs like good food for her one-year-old daughter.


“The care [I received] 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,” Annet said.


UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, estimates that one in four teenaged girls (about 700,000) in Uganda have either got pregnant or had a child.


Very few of them complete school, and 68 per cent of teenaged girls between 15 and 19 years have never even set foot in secondary school. About 51 per cent (4.3 million) of Uganda’s adolescents are girls; many of them face vulnerabilities like child marriage, pregnancies and violence.


Furthermore, of the 110,000 adolescents infected with HIV & AIDS, the highest prevalence is among girls, who make up 66 per cent.


Although she made it to secondary school, Harriet Mutesi didn’t get past senior three level. Her parents, who were poor, couldn’t afford the school fees of Shs 40,000 per term.


Since she joined the club earlier this year, Harriet’s life has changed because she now hopes she may continue with her education. Unlike Annet, who wants to learn hairdressing and tailoring, Harriet 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 school fees,” Harriet said. “My wish is that I get a sponsor so that I can be able to achieve my dream of being a nurse.”


Because many girls are struggling to stay in school, UNFPA and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) launched the Better Life for Girls (BL4G) project. Implemented by BRAC Uganda, BL4G has transformed the lives of many girls across 14 districts in the eastern and Karamoja regions.


By the end of 2016, more than 22,000 girls aged between 10 and 19 years were enrolled in ELA clubs and of these, more than 1,000 have started income-generating activities.


Margret Namukuve, Project Assistant with BRAC Uganda, said that since the ELA club was formed in Bwanalila village, the number of recruits has grown. Fifty girls had joined the club within three months of its formation.


“Every day after doing their chores the teenaged mothers and girls who dropped out of school come here for sessions with counsellors. Their parents, especially their mothers, support it because they say it [keeps] their daughters occupied and avoiding bad company,” she said.


As well as empowering teenaged 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 male and female teachers who are trained in counselling and referrals.


Free sanitary pads


Hellen Akisaati, a primary seven pupil at Bugadde Primary School, Mayuge district, is one of 70 girls who uses 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 girl is no longer afraid as she has been taught how to handle her body’s changes.


The safe space at Bugadde has cleaning items like a basin, water, soap, dresses [they can change into] and material for making temporary pads. In case of an abrupt start to their menstrual periods, the girls can rush there to tidy up and to make emergency pads out of cloth and wool, if they forget to carry their free reusable pads.


The reusable pads can be used for up to two years, if properly handled.


Mary Awinjo, a teacher at Bugadde Primary, said that before the introduction of safe spaces, the school had the challenge of many girls dropping out.


Most of the girls would shy away from, 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, this has changed. The girls are now highly protected,” said Ms. Awinjo.


“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.”


Hellen Akisaati is one of more than 52,000 schoolgirls who have received menstrual hygiene management support since last year. More money ($587,000) has been earmarked for purchasing reusable pads and training of school-based clubs on how to make reusable pads.


Joab Buyinza, In-Charge at Malongo Health Centre III, said because of the referral system, many teenagers now throng for services at the clinic, which serves more than seven schools in the vicinity.


Some 498 health personnel from 153 health facilities have been trained in youth-friendly services in Karamoja and the eastern region since 2016. They in turn have helped extend services like STI/HIV testing, antenatal care and family planning to more than 131,000 adolescent girls.


According to Ms. Buyinza, the numbers of adolescents visiting the health centre has doubled; more of them have started getting services like counselling and STI testing. The facility has set up ‘special Thursdays’ when youth are given priority and on these days, more than 100 attend the centre.


To consolidate the gains of BL4G projects in keeping girls in school, male associations have been mobilized to lead social change in Eastern and Karamoja regions, where girls face the gravest vulnerabilities. Currently, there are 140 male action groups and they have conducted 280 dialogues in their communities.


The 15-member-strong Male Action Group (MAG) is one such group. It has helped reduce defilement and teenage pregnancies in Bukatuube subcounty, Mayuge district.


According to Moses Kato, MAG chairperson, they have a representative in each of the 15 parishes, who works with police to identify those abusing adolescent girls.


MAG has helped identify defilers and works with police to apprehend them. The group has also taught parents the importance of keeping girls in school.


“Most of the teenaged mothers we talked to wanted to go back to school. We managed to convince some parents to take them back [to school where] they are performing well. So far, because of our efforts, 66 girls have gone back to school,” said Mr. Kato.


The 140 groups have been able to talk to more than 4,420 parents about ending teenage pregnancies and keeping girls in school. The BL4G project will continue improving adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.


By Abubaker Mayemba


This article was first published by The Observer