Sex is not child’s play: so take all young people seriously

Access to sex education and condoms, and making your own family planning decisions: often it still depends on sex, race, mobility, location, money and gender norms. The new generation of women activists wants to expand access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). They are demanding change – in the bedroom and in the boardroom. We took a look at the situation in Rwanda, Zambia and Ethiopia.

Moms weigh their babies in Oromia, Ethiopia.
Image: ©Flickr
Moms weigh their babies in Oromia, Ethiopia.

Around the age of fifteen she began to notice something. From one day to the next, students would be missing from school. Always girls. ‘I was looking at an empty chair where Jeanette had always sat. Gone! A week later, Immaculee had also disappeared.’

Marie-Ange Raissa Uwamungu soon realised what was going on, she tells me on a Zoom call from Kigali. Like youngsters everywhere, young people in Rwanda fall in love, feel their hormones racing, and experience the urge to kiss and make love.

But comprehensive, youth-friendly sex education is virtually non-existent in Rwandan schools. There’s no point turning to your parents for information on the birds and the bees, so many young people are more or less in the dark.

‘Girls suffer disproportionate restrictions when it comes to SRHR,’ says Uwamungu. ‘The more vulnerable their situation, the less access they have to knowledge and information about their body. But if a girl in Rwanda becomes pregnant, she shames her family. She becomes the teenage mother who has to drop out of school. She is the empty chair in class.’

A recent Rwandan study found clear evidence that teenage girls from poor families and/or growing up without education become pregnant at a much earlier age. They are also at much greater risk of contracting an STD or HIV, and living in extreme poverty, which often results from pregnancy at an early age. 

Although Rwanda is doing better than its neighbours, the proportion of teenage pregnancies rose from 4% in 2005 to 7% in 2015, though it fell back to 5% last year. 15% of 19-year-olds fall pregnant.

It is absurd that young people are not taken seriously

According to MP Suzanne Mukayijori, whose brief is population and development, the Rwandan culture of silence is a big factor in the teenage pregnancy problem in the East African nation.

In an interview with Rwandan newspaper The New Times she said: ‘Generally the community knows who made the girl pregnant, but no one says anything. The family keep it quiet, and so do the neighbours. This creates a world in which the perpetrators take absolutely no responsibility whatsoever and the girls suffer in silence.’

‘The way they navigate puberty will determine what the world is like in a few decades’

Fortunately, not every girl suffers this cruel fate. Uwamungu, now 27, was born in a suburb of the capital Kigali, where she lived with her younger sister, mother and grandmother. Determined to ensure that her little sister did not end up having to swap her school bag for a nappy bag, in 2016 she launched the Impanuro Girls Initiative, an NGO that focuses on gender equality and preventing teenage pregnancy.

Raissa Uwamungo

‘I wanted to tackle the status quo,’ she says, ‘and help the girls around me access sex education and contraception. We also tackle the underlying problem, harmful gender norms, so we talk to boys, men and parents too.’

On this planet, where 24% of the population is aged between 10 and 24, it is absurd that young people are not taken seriously, and their voice is not heard by organisations and institutions, Uwamungu believes.

Absurd? ‘Yes! The way they navigate puberty will determine what the world is like in a few decades. It might sound dramatic, but access to SRHR is often literally a question of life or death. Thanks to my personal struggle, however, I do understand better now why young people are not listened to enough.’

One in three girls in countries in the South are married off before the age of 18. This puts their health, education and future at risk. Half of all victims of sexual violence are girls under the age of 16. (Source: United Nations)

Uwamungu explains that it is not only her sex, but also her age that makes it difficult for her to have any influence in society. In her world, the idea that young people must obey the older generation is very strong.

As a newcomer, it was difficult for her to find her place among established organisations. ‘As a newbie, I was often told I was not capable enough to run an organisation. I’ve seen other young people abandon their projects because they didn’t feel they were taken seriously.’ This is highly counterproductive, she thinks, particularly when it comes to informing and educating young people about intimate matters like love and sex.

‘Under Rwandan law,’ she explains, ‘anyone under the age of 18 must get a parent’s permission to buy contraceptives! If you do manage to overcome that barrier, the employee at the service centre will often advise against any sexual activity – not to mention that condoms are unaffordable for the average teenager here.’

This catch-22 situation makes it almost impossible for young people to have safe sex. This made her even more determined to focus on inclusion and representation. ‘To make SRHR more accessible, young people need role models their own age to inform them and help them find solutions in a friendly and respectful manner, without shame or discrimination.’

Strong and resilient organisations

Civil society organisations should play a role in changing young people’s situation, Marie-Ange Raissa Uwamungu believes. ‘We all have to roll up our sleeves,’ she says. ‘If you are campaigning for youth-friendly services, such as comprehensive sex education and provision of contraceptives, make sure you have young people in your team.’

She says the main thing that is needed is capacity building to make new organisations strong and resilient. Since she launched her organisation in 2017, her views on SRHR have changed, she explains.

‘I now have a better idea of how different types of exclusion impact on young people. A girl living in the countryside will have more gender inequality problems. Men tend to be the breadwinners there, and if as a woman you have no money, the only thing you have to offer is your body in exchange for food or shelter.’

Uwamungu (in the middle) with young girls showing their certificates, after completing a training by the Impanuro Girls Initiative.

Women and girls in conflict situations, or with a disability or HIV, find it more difficult to access information and care. To ensure no one is left behind, Uwamungu plans to shift her training and activities to rural areas over the next few years, and to make sure that the most marginalised young people are also taught how to get through puberty in a youth-friendly and respectful way.

‘Of course I focus on things that need improving, but at the same time my country has made huge strides in terms of gender equality. In 2008 Rwanda became the first country in the world with a majority of female MPs.

‘Today’s world needs our fresh ideas, and that is why you need to trust us’

‘I’m lucky that my grandma guided me through the minefield of shame and taboos once I reached puberty. I realise we still have a long way to go, but we have also come a long way. In her day what I do would have been impossible.’

She would like to say something to the older generation. ‘Accept that the life you led fifty years ago is not the life we live today. The world is constantly changing, and your children and grandchildren are changing with it.

‘Old people try to change young people, but change comes from within. Or, as we say in Kinyarwanda: Amaraso mashya”, our blood is still fresh. Today’s world needs our fresh ideas, and that is why you need to trust us.’

An inclusive society for young people with HIV or a disability

Over 2000 kilometres south of Kigali lies Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where Nsofwa Petronella Sampa lives. She says it was ‘inevitable’ that she would become an activist. Her lived reality left her no choice.

‘I was born with HIV. Due to poor medical treatment in 2009 I contracted meningitis, which left me blind and with impaired hearing in my right ear. That is why I am now campaigning with my new organisation Positive Movement for an inclusive society for young people with HIV or a disability – or both, like me.’

Nsofwa Petronella Sampa
Nsofwa Petronella Sampa

She would have liked to have had a role model as an adolescent, someone facing the same problems. Instead, it was a question of survival, and grabbing any opportunities that presented themselves with both hands.

‘When I lost my sight,’ she says, ‘I was halfway through high school. I had to find a blind-friendly school. There are hardly any in Zambia. I ended up at a government institution in Lusaka. The teachers there still used sticks to point to words on the board, in full knowledge of the fact that there were one blind and two visually-impaired students in class.’

Life was not easy, because she always dependent on others to help her. What kept her going?

‘My family gives me lots of love and support. When I could still see, I saw with my own eyes what happens in my society to people who have a disability. I did everything in my power not to end up that way, as an outcast, a vagrant, begging for charity in the streets. I would not wish such a fate on anybody. That’s why I will never give up.’

While most people need around three years to learn braille, Sampa managed it in three months. This was a huge achievement, and testament to her perseverance. Despite all the obstacles, she passed her school exams and went on to study clinical counselling of vulnerable people. After graduation she worked in the community, teaching people about things like HIV and AIDS, SRHR and gender-related violence.

In Zambia 4.4% of young people under 18 live with a disability. (Source: *Zambia National Disability Survey, 2015)

What will it take to change the situation for people with disabilities or HIV in Zambia? Sampa believes it all starts with attitude. ‘I remember when I was a little girl,’ she says, ‘if an albino walked by, we would have to spit on our T-shirt to prevent ourselves from becoming like that. That’s what we believed!’

‘There’s this ingrained idea about people with disabilities that we have no added value, that we’re not part of society. Sometimes disabled children are locked away at home because their parents are ashamed. Those ideas, they need to be tackled.’

Fair chance for all

The only thing Sampa is asking for is a fair chance for all. Her concern is to get people who are usually excluded back on board.

‘Give someone a wheelchair, build wheelchair-friendly libraries and shops, ensure that teachers at schools for the blind can also read braille, that there is someone working at the hospital who knows sign language so that a deaf patient does not always need to communicate through a third person, but gets the privacy they need.’

Positive Movement is about representation. Like Uwamungu in Rwanda, Sampa sees that the youth-friendly services that are available in Zambia are generally run by adults. But conversations between young people themselves are often more meaningful. They prefer to talk to each other. ‘It’s good if young people with disabilities are also trained to provide services,’ she says. ‘They are role models, and are in the best position to understand other young people in the same boat.’

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

Sampa is currently negotiating on behalf of her organisation with legislators, hospitals and schools to explore how they can work together to make institutions more inclusive, so that no one is left standing on the sidelines. And she plans to join forces with civil society organisations to identify where children and young people with HIV or disabilities are, and how many of them there are.

‘There are no figures. These people have often been shut out of public life, and are therefore very difficult to reach. We want them – and their families – to realise that they have rights, just like everyone else on the planet.

‘Many have never heard of SRHR, even though they too have a right to honest and accessible information about bodily autonomy, a place they can turn to if they fall victim to gender-related violence or if they have complications during pregnancy. It is precisely these vulnerable people who suffer the most terrible injustices, and they in particular need our help.’ 

To Sampa, a well-known African proverb expresses perfectly what her organisation is all about: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

She now says: ‘I was born in a country where adults have divided themselves into different ethnic and political groups. And where everyone has their own vision: either women’s rights, or climate. But we have to realise that everything is related to everything else, and that we are not so different from each other. We have to stand strong together, even young people, and we need everyone for that – young and old, disabled or able-bodied.’

Room for improvement

Ethiopian Hanan Arebu (28) may live 3800 kilometres further north than Sampa, but they share the same sense of responsibility for the world around them. Arebu does not want to ‘just live and then die’, she says.

No, she wants to have an impact by helping people, and she does so as a national volunteer for VSO. On a Zoom call with Addis Abeba, where Arebu and her family live, she explains what she does to ensure that vulnerable young people have access to their SRHR.

She spent four months working in a centre in the capital that cared for victims of gender-related violence, where she interviewed clients, observed and analysed. She saw a big difference between their services on paper, and what was actually being done.

‘There’s still a lot of room for improvement in this field,’ she says, with a note of concern in her voice. ‘The biggest problem is the total lack of information. People who are victims of gender-related violence often don’t even know that they can get help, they don’t know where the centre is, don’t know the opening hours. This information gap is the first thing that must be tackled.’

The Make Way programme

Uwamungu, Sampa and Arebu are not just three random young women. Thanks to their shared passion for taking an intersectional view of SRHR for and by young people, over the next five years they will join the Make Way programme – a five-year intersectional consortium subsidised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – where they will receive counselling and training and have opportunities to network.

The focus of the programme is ensuring that everyone, including the most marginalised groups, gains access to SRHR. It is being run by Akina Mama wa Afrika, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians Kenya, the Forum for African Women Educationalists, the Liliane Fund, VSO and Wemos.

Vulnerable position

Young people in particular face many obstacles. ‘Our culture is very traditional and strong; young people are expected to obey their elders. Gender definitely plays a big role. A woman is subordinate to her husband – particularly in rural areas. If you also have a disability, you are in a completely vulnerable position.’

She mentions the example of a woman who has been raped. At the centre she is discriminated against because she is a woman, and it is taboo for her to say that she has been raped. A man will always be given help, whatever has happened to him. 

‘An Ethiopian woman once came in, her name was Abaynesh. She had problems with her spine, so she came on crutches. She had come to the centre because she was pregnant, but she wasn’t treated equally.

‘Despite her protests she was given an injection in her back so that the baby could be delivered by caesarean. After the birth, she could barely walk, and she is still in rehabilitation now… This is why I think it’s good to look at these issues through an intersectional lens, and to realise that people in vulnerable – sometimes doubly vulnerable – positions have a lot more difficulty obtaining justice. This is a problem of the society they grow up in, not of these people themselves.’

Arebu’s job is to inform young people with disabilities about their rights. Information is a superpower, she believes. ‘We, young volunteers, work as trainers and educators for young people with disabilities. We teach them how to claim their rights, what to do if they are unfairly treated. In the future we hope to work with disabled role models who can inspire others by showing them what they can do.’

Does she have a dream for her country? ‘Above all, I want there to be peace. And I want everyone in Ethiopia to have the same opportunities to build a respectful life for themselves.’

This article was previously published in 'Vice Versa - Jongerenspecial 2021'

Text: Marlies Pilon