‘Puberty is scary’ – Teaching SRHR in Busembatia

‘Puberty is scary’ – Teaching SRHR in Busembatia
21st June 2017

written by Meg Beare

There are lots of ways in which teaching in Busembatia sometimes seems like an insurmountable challenge. At times the SRHR [Sexual and Reproductive Health & Rights] team of Leah and I truly feel like strangers in a strange land. The classrooms we teach in are unplastered with no glass in the windows. Inside they are dark and cramped; desks packed so tightly together that students climb over each other to get to their seats.

“There is little to no formal education about contraceptives, so when they become sexually active, their reproductive control is limited”

But the state of the classrooms doesn’t even figure as a concern here. The girls who pile into our classrooms face sexual health challenges that are immediate and intense. A quarter of girls in Uganda between ages 15 to 19 are pregnant or already have a child. There is little to no formal education about contraceptives, so when they become sexually active, their reproductive control is limited. In addition, poverty makes them easy targets for older men, who coax them with gifts and sometimes even necessities such as school fees. There is no second chance at education for teen mothers here; expectant students are summarily expelled.

Beyond the risk of pregnancy, rates of HIV are high in Uganda, with nearly one in ten adults infected. Men frequently insist that sex is unprotected, endangering their partners. When we did surveys to assess the girls’ knowledge of HIV, barely half of them knew that condoms could protect them from the virus. Even if they felt able to negotiate condom use, they may not understand its importance.

Even simply menstruating can cause serious problems for young women here. Many drop out of school when they get their periods, because they don’t know how to manage it, and because modern sanitary wear is unaffordable.

All this makes information on sexual health critical for these young women, yet disagreements between parents and schools as to who should bear responsibility for this is letting an entire generation of young women fall through the cracks. The consequences ripple through their families, their communities, and ultimately their nation.

“We can foster an atmosphere where they can reflect on their options, and make the decisions that they want”

Leah and I are trying our best to provide the information these girls need, but also to create a space for them to explore this dimension of adulthood. Class discussions and debates, practising how to negotiate condom use – these are all features of the class that go beyond dumping facts on the teens and hoping they figure it out. We cannot and would not dictate behaviour to these girls, as newcomers in their country, but we can foster an atmosphere where they can reflect on their options, and make the decisions that they want, rather than feeling coerced by one party or another.

Sometimes teaching here involves physical barriers that are almost hilarious; we have waded in rainwater up to our knees, carrying our teaching materials above our heads to keep them dry, only to be told on arrival that class was cancelled because of the weather. We have had to carry the office printer in our arms to the other side of town, to seek out one of the few people whose electricity hadn’t gone down. This is the reality of working in Uganda; you have to be flexible and persistent in equal measure.

“No matter where you live, no matter what else is happening in your world, puberty is scary”

But our minor struggles in getting to class are always worth it. We introduced a box for the girls to ask us anonymous questions, and the response we got was overwhelming. Many of them asked questions about things no teen should need to wonder about, such as what action to take if you’ve been raped by someone with AIDS. But despite the big challenges in their lives, and despite the implications for poverty and development that these challenges have, there was one overriding question:

“- Am I normal?”

No matter where you live, no matter what else is happening in your world, puberty is scary. When you lack information, and the capability to get information, it is even scarier. Everything from a missed period, to being scared about sex can make a teen feel broken and alone. They need adults they can trust, and who are unafraid to talk frankly, especially about taboo subjects. We are trying to be those trusted adults. Strangers though we are, the girls have decided to open up to us about their biggest fears. So when they pile into those dark, cramped classrooms, it’s an honour to be their teacher.

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