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. 

To Prevent Abuse, Young People Must Know their Rights

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence and suicide.

Recently, a Twitter user named @twadi_doll shared her story fearlessly and curtly online – giving many people a reality check and leaving them feeling shaken.

Twadi narrated in her thread that at 13 years – orphaned and young – she found herself living with a pastor and his wife.

A respected…no, scratch that…a revered member of society, the man of God raped Twadi her on a regular basis. On other occasions, he would call his friends and they took turns exploiting her body. As if that wasn’t enough, the pastor would ask her constantly to seek forgiveness from God, for making him commit a sin.  

Since she had nowhere to go and was being blackmailed by the pastor for receiving food and shelter from him for 3 years, Twadi couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand. Even when she spoke out in church, she was called a liar and a demon who had been sent to tempt and disorganise the pastor in his job of shepherding the Lord’s people.

As a result of the continued sexual abuse, Twadi became pregnant and 6 months later, her teachers learnt of her story and offered her immediate support. They opened a case against the pastor, who in shame committed suicide. An abortion was arranged for Twadi and painful as it was, she took the option because she had long decided that either the baby dies or she commits suicide herself.

Twadi’s story calls upon us all to play our part in improving SRHR information and service access to young people.

This lack of access spirals into multiple other challenges, and sadly, it is the young person who suffers. Their untapped potential is heavily undermined.

For starters, we should always be able to come out and condemn what is wrong, no matter the position or reputation of the person in question. The pastor’s wife, years later after her husband’s death, wrote Twadi a letter saying she knew about the abuse the whole time, but found it better than her man going out to cheat. In Twadi’s own words, “she used me as a glue to hold her marriage together.” The pastor’s wife betrayed and failed Twadi, and her suffering falls as equally on her shoulders as it does on the pastor’s.

We need to pay special attention to young people’s voices on their reproductive health concerns with as open a mind as possible.

Sometimes we can’t understand young people by assuming we know who they are and what they want, especially if we aren’t young people ourselves. The pastor’s congregation was way off course in this case, defending the pastor simply because of his position and ignoring the truth Twadi was telling.

If even one of them had taken time to hear her out, it could have changed her fortune. We should seek virtual spaces where young people are free to talk about their challenges with no fear of judgement, and where they are sure they will be believed and helped.

It is critical that we provide young people with information on their rights so that they can know when to say no, how to say it and how to defend themselves against manipulation and abuse.

The more we starve young people of such information, the more we make them vulnerable to attacks and abuse and the multiple challenges that ripple from those.

Finally, we need to work with stakeholders who can put policies in place to ease the combatting of these challenges. In Uganda, for example, we have been advocating for an operational School Health Policy where we can provide sexual and reproductive health and rights information to young people that fits the context we live in.

Such a document is key, because then we can arm young people with knowledge, and we will have the backing of the law. It is something that policy makers and governments should consider, lest we see more young people come out with stories similar to Twadi’s.

This selfless story should be an eye opener.

Many young people are undergoing such horrific challenges, and the veils of religion and culture, which otherwise should be guiding us to a sane and loving society, are being used as defences and barriers against SRHR access. Such incidents are indeed present in our society and the best we can do is speak out against them, bring the perpetrators to justice and provide young people with information and services so that they can make informed decisions and protect themselves.

PS: Twadi has moved on and is strong now. However, is that what we want, for all young people to become strong like her and move on? Or is it better to stamp abuse out once and for all? Something must change in our communities, right here and right now.