For many young people in Uganda and beyond, growing up as an adolescent comes with a lot of challenges especially where health is concerned. On the one hand, are the puzzling body changes rising out of puberty like wet dreams and menstruation and on the other, the vulnerability to sexuality risks such as teenage pregnancies and exposure to HIV.
Teenage pregnancies which according to the 2016 Uganda Demographic Health Survey stands at 25% of adolescents age 15-19 who have already begun childbearing for example, remains a big dilemma for many girls in rural Uganda with exposure to unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV and dangerous child birth.
The problem is that very many young people face barriers to reproductive health information and care. Those that have some access to that information, do not have access to services to help them make informed health choices.
Let me you through their voices. Under the Common Matters campaign, Trac FM partnered with Reach A Hand Uganda to find out from the radio listeners – through a radio poll – about health services required by adolescents in communities in Uganda. This poll was carried out on different radio stations that include; Radio Pacis, Radio Simba, Hunter FM, Mega FM, Hits FM, Delta FM, Radio Wa and Nenah FM in the Ugandan districts of Arua, Kampala, Bushenyi, Gulu, Fort Portal, Soroti, Lira and Moroto.
At the back of this campaign, we recognize that in traditional health facility settings, all patients access care according to specific health needs. However, this does not cater for the needs of adolescents and young people, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. To address the health needs of the adolescents, youth friendly health services are available in some public and private health facilities. Unfortunately, these are not always available or fully functioning, while the need for services is there.
The responses tell it all. From over 2800 responses that we got, the majority (44%) of the responses said the youth need information and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, 19% – Psychosocial care for sexual or substance abuse, 13% – provision of maternal care for teenage pregnancies, 13% – provision of family planning services and finally 11% – information on youth health rights.
These coming from the public- and the experts, show that the public acknowledges that there are reproductive health challenges affecting young people in Ugandan communities which are fundamentally contributing to societal issues I have already raised above.
There is a need to understand why these challenges continue to manifest themselves. A series of multifaceted barriers currently prohibits good sexual and reproductive health for adolescents. At the political level, Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRH) is low priority and there are often restrictive laws and policies in place. Various societal, cultural, and religious factors create an inhibitive environment for discussion of ASRH as many societies hold a deeply embedded sense of disapproval of adolescent sexual health; this is often demonstrated through the stigmatization of sexual health concerns, in particular STIs/HIV.
Adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health must be supported. This means providing access to high quality sexuality education; services to prevent, diagnose and treat STIs; and counselling on family planning. It also means empowering young people to know and exercise their rights – including the right to delay marriage and the right to refuse unwanted sexual advances.