The App Empowering Young Women in Uganda

In Uganda, young women and girls face many sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) challenges. For example, a high unmet need for contraception leads to dire consequences like unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Challenges that limit provision of SRHR services to adolescents and young women include lack of privacy and confidentiality, knowledge gaps, cultural and social stigma, biased service providers, and inconvenience in accessing SRHR services despite their availability. Although there have been improvements in creating a youth-attractive environment for SRHR services and access to tools, more work is needed.

We are constantly reminded of the need to provide avenues where young people – including women and girls – can access sexual and reproductive health and rights services that are equitable, appropriate and effective.

At Reach A Hand Uganda, we help to address this need through our youth empowerment centres, and now, we have introduced the SAUTIplus app.

The SAUTIplus app is an innovative part of the SAUTIplus ecosystem,  helping to fill existing gaps in information. Uganda is experiencing a smartphone boom, with over half the population now owning one, and this number is increasing day by day.

Internet penetration in Uganda is at 41.6% – with 19 million Ugandans connected to the internet. In 2017, the Uganda Communications Commission recorded that the total number of mobile phone subscriptions was 23,529,979, up from 21,039,690 the previous quarter.

The SAUTIplus app was revamped two months ago to further engage Uganda’s high youth population and, at the time of writing, has 1,600 downloads on Google Play Store. The iOS version is in its final stages of going live.

On the app, information is available day or night. With a few taps of their phone, young women and girls can quickly find answers to their burning questions about sexual and reproductive health.

It’s the young people at Reach a Hand Uganda producing the content for the app and answering the questions – with support from the Programs and Communications departments. We understand the needs of the young women and girls and can craft our responses to reach the users in a relatable manner.

Users are able to see answers to questions other young people have asked and read tailor-made stories addressing issues faced by girls. Questions can be submitted on the website (hopefully soon to be added to the app) and the questions and answers can be viewed on either the app or website. The questions can be anonymous to maintain a safe and confidential space.

The app provides accurate information on SRHR, rather than simply promoting abstinence, which has proven an ineffective method of protecting young girls in Uganda.

The section named ‘Senga’ is a reference to a trusted relationship between a woman and her father’s sister (auntie). This relationship is commonly one where information regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights is passed on, but there can be a gap in appropriate or accurate information. This is where the SAUTIplus app comes in.

‘Senga’ provides an opportunity to view answers to questions you may have had yourself, smashing the common myths and misconceptions surrounding SRHR in Uganda. “My boyfriend says we don’t need contraception because he will pull out at the last minute. Is this a good idea?” is an example of one of the questions asked by a young girl on Senga.

The SAUTIplus app is providing a platform for women and girls to take charge of their sexual health. The knowledge the app provides is giving power to young women.

With power comes increased agency and the ability to negotiate within relationships – for example, with regards to contraceptive use to prevent pregnancy. No topic is taboo on the app. This includes menstruation and menstrual hygiene, a key SRHR challenge Reach a Hand have identified among young women in the country.

The for-the-youth attitude of the SAUTIplus app means it is an engaging platform for young people to access reliable information. Multimedia content, including photos, videos and blogs, provide a plethora of youth-friendly, easily digestible resources on SRHR.

The app is in continuous development, striving to meet the changing needs of young women in Uganda. It aims to create a positive relationship between young people and SRHR information, showing that information is a tool of power and not something to be dismissed. 

Talking Frankly: Vaginas & Menstrual Hygiene

I have an insatiable urge to persuade my sisters around the world to tear off shame with all their strength. I yearn to tell them to deny society the privilege of silencing us when when we want to talk about things that matter. Things like vaginas and menstruation.

Here is the real deal.

We can crush the walls erected around us in the name of culture simply by talking about the well-being of our vaginas. During menstruation, things can get a little bit messy down there, and so you need proper sanitary wear to maintain freshness and hygiene.

It’s absurd that around the world, many are still found wanting of these necessities. Can you imagine the trauma women have to go through? There is a dire need to talk about vaginal health and hygiene during menstruation. It’s only by doing so that we will terminate the silence and the myths.

The vagina is a part of the body which must be hidden from view. It’s not something a woman can easily speak about – that’s how we are socialized. Therefore, over the years, generations have been enduring menstruation in silence and shame, and without proper sanitary wear.

But has the silence been beneficial? Certainly not. Our misery around menstruation is utter, lonely and complete.

This is why I plead with my Zimbabwean government – and other governments across the globe that have remained ignorant – to prioritize menstrual hygiene.

In Zimbabwe, the provision of free sanitary products – especially in rural and marginalized areas where women and girls live in poverty – should be a central focus.

Vaginas are naturally moist. This means that women without access to safe sanitary products during menstruation become at risk of disease and infection. I wonder, then, about the vaginal health of girls and women who are forced for whatever reason to use cow dung, leaves or grass?

This seems like a good moment to say that if it has ever crossed your mind that talking about the hygiene of vaginas during menstruation is disgusting, wait! What’s really disgusting is the fact that our governments are able to provide free condoms of all shapes and sizes, but have the audacity to reiterate that they can’t afford to provide free sanitary products.

Menstruation is not a choice.

You can’t wake up one day and decide not to have your period. It will happen whether you like it or not, and whether you’re equipped to deal with it or not.

Refusing to prioritize menstrual hygiene is a sure-fire way to further perpetuate gender inequality. In many parts of the world, women and girls constitute a larger percentage of those who are economically dependent. Many simply cannot afford the cost of sanitary wear throughout their menstruating years. Denying access to basic menstrual hygiene products impedes on individuals’ well-being as equal human beings.

The scales of imbalance need to be tilted and menstrual hygiene must be recognized as a priority in order to do so.

The girls and women using cow dung, leaves or grass during menstruation are, in most cases, predominantly poor, geographically and socially isolated from the rest of the world and lacking in political power. It is important for charitable organizations, advocacy campaigns and governments to come up with interventions that are compatible with their circumstances. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

Although some of Zimbabwe’s most marginalized communities are still conservative, I can confidently argue that within these communities there are many individuals who are eager for change. They want it so badly, but they just need that push of support to get the work done.

I firmly believe that ending the silence and shame surrounding menstruation is possible, one community at a time.

Along with universal access to products, what if women could be empowered with knowledge to make simple handmade sanitary pads using low cost materials? I think it would be ground breaking.

The problem of unhygienic menstruation can be solved if practical interventions are executed well and the cultural taboos are challenged. Do you agree? I’d love to hear your perspective.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

?Check out 
Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting common myths around menstruation?

In Conversation with Christine Sayo

Christine Sayo is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate from Kenya. In this conversation with Girls’ Globe, she talks about feeling judged by others for simply talking openly about issues related to sex.

“The community looks at you as a deviant, as someone who is going against the norm.”

The good news, though, is that Christine is seeing a shift in attitudes thanks to globalization and increased access to information from different channels.

“Having information coming in from different sources has helped to destigmatize some of these issues around sexual and reproductive health in young people.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.

If you liked this post, we think you’ll love our interviews with KingaWinfredScarlett, Natasha, Tasneem and Beverly, too!

In Conversation With Winfred Ongom

Winfred Ongom is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate working with the White Ribbon Alliance in Uganda. She tells us about the challenges she faces as a young woman speaking up on issues many would rather keep quiet about – including convincing her mother that her brothers should learn about condoms!

“It took her some time – we still have those fights – but at least there is some progress and she understands the need for them to protect themselves.”

By improving laws, staying open-minded and focusing on human rights-based approaches, Winfred is hopeful that future generations won’t face the stigma, mis-information and discrimination holding young people back today.

“Maybe the children I’ll have will have a better life, where their sexuality is open and they’re free to talk about it.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.

“A world of hope for adolescent girls” – Olive’s story

This is the fourth and final blog in a series sharing personal family planning stories from around the world – presented by CARE and Girls’ Globe in the lead up to the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning. Catch up on the whole series with stories from HawaParmila, and Oun Srey Leak.

Rwanda has made significant strides in empowering women and girls and ensuring they have access to affordable healthcare, including access to family planning.

Access to contraception has steadily increased from 17% in 2005 to 53% in 2015.

The government has decentralized and subsidized healthcare to ensure the most remote areas are reached and the most vulnerable communities can access services. However, the biggest unmet need for family planning is predominantly among young and unmarried women. In 2016 alone, 17,000 girls reportedly became pregnant before turning 18!

In 2016, the Government of Rwanda began providing comprehensive sexuality education in schools, however there is still a long way to go to ensure teachers are equipped with the skills and information needed to engage in age-appropriate, open and honest conversations with students.

I work for CARE in Rwanda, where I advocate for increased access to age-appropriate, integrated sexual and reproductive health services, rights, and education for in-school and out-of-school adolescent girls. Although the country has made notable progress in promoting women’s and girls’ rights in recent years, teenage pregnancies have continued to rise, leading to dire socio-economic and health consequences for Rwandan girls.

A few weeks ago, I attended an information session for young women in Kigali where a medical doctor explained available methods of contraception. I realised then that there is a lot young people do not know. But it made me wonder…

If the youth of Kigali don’t know how to prevent pregnancy or to take care of their sexual and reproductive health, what about women and girls who reside in rural areas where access to information and services is still a challenge – even a luxury?

In my time at CARE, I have seen the tremendous work the organisation is doing around the world to increase demand for sexual and reproductive health information and services, including contraception. Much of our work focuses on addressing underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability and helping communities to challenge harmful and negative socio-cultural norms that hinder women and girls from enjoying their rights and reaching their development potential.

Two weeks ago, I met a group of adolescent girls in Karongi District, Western Rwanda, where CARE is implementing the Better Environment for Education (BEE) project to increase chances of girls staying in school. During my visit, the girls talked to me about the various problems that they faced, including unwanted and early pregnancy. As I listened to their stories, I wondered whether we are doing enough to address these issues.

One particular 17-year-old stood out to me. As she narrated her story with teary eyes, she recalled the difficult time she went through when she found out she was pregnant, and described how she was abandoned by her family. She felt she had failed them and failed herself. At some point she was forced to quit school to raise her infant. But when the BEE project began, she decided to join one of the clubs and suddenly found hope. According to her, the clubs have provided a space and a voice for girls to talk and to get accurate and comprehensive sexuality education.

Although the local health centre is just a few metres away from the school and provides condoms and other contraceptive methods, young people in Karongi told me they feel judged and shamed when they go there to seek services that they are entitled to. The BEE project aims to address this as well by giving adolescent girls a platform to dialogue with the school administration and local leaders to express their needs.

Studies have shown adolescents are increasingly becoming sexually active before they turn 18 and this is a reality we should not ignore. Too often, in countries like Rwanda, adolescent girls do not have information regarding their changing bodies or sexuality in general.

Adolescent pregnancy undermines a girl’s ability to exercise her rights to education, health, and autonomy. It’s not only a health issue, but a human rights and development one too. 

I believe that CARE’s integrated approach to empowering adolescent girls, including economic empowerment through savings clubs, sexuality education, addressing gender-based violence and engaging power holders such as parents, boys, school administration officers, and local leaders is powerful in ensuring the problem is addressed from all sides. I have no doubt that this will bring about transformation in the lives of girls and their communities.

We have no more time to lose.