By Patricia Amito Lutwama
Young people in Uganda face diverse sexual and reproductive health challenges that have both immediate and lasting consequences on their health, education and income-earning potential.
Among these, unplanned pregnancy stands out as one of the most significant reproductive health challenges young people face.
Unplanned pregnancy is devastating not only for the girl but also for the community and the country as a whole.
While various programmes have been implemented to address the sexual and reproductive health issues of young people in school, unfortunately their counterparts who are out of school have not been adequately targeted with sexual and reproductive health information and services.
This is mostly so in the case of girls and young women, who often drop out of school at an early age due to various social and economic factors including pregnancy.
For many young people aged 15-24 years, who are out of school, engaging in small business is one of the ways they try to make a living.
Because they are not in touch with formal education structures, they tend to have limited knowledge about their sexuality and reproductive health, making them particularly vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health challenges.
For instance, research shows that many young people have wrong information about sexual reproductive health issues.
According to a baseline study by Straight Talk Foundation and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2013, 54% of young people believe that a girl cannot get pregnant the first time she has unprotected sex.
Most young people in business are already sexually active and yet have limited information about family planning and sexually transmitted infections.
In addition, they tend not to have responsible and positive health seeking behaviours; because of ignorance about the availability of services, distance to the health centre and absence of youth friendly services.
As these young people venture into starting businesses, they are looking forward to reaping huge profits and becoming successful entrepreneurs.
For a young person, employment and a good income is the most important goal; sexual and reproductive health is low among their priorities.
However, these dreams of employment and a good life can be shattered with one bad decision. There is a positive correlation between income and vulnerability of young people towards sexual reproductive health challenges.
Rather than protecting young people from sexual reproductive health issues, access to disposable income from their business makes them more vulnerable to such conditions.
Having disposable income makes them prone to drug/alcohol abuse and multiple sexual relationships that expose them to HIV and other sexual transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.
The consequences of unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and other reproductive ill health are devastating for a young person as they are unprepared for the economic change that comes with dealing with these challenges.
But the problem doesn’t end with the individual; the country also loses when young people suffer from reproductive ill health.
According to UNFPA State of the World Population 2013, if an adolescent girl gets pregnant, the opportunity cost related to this pregnancy (the annual income foregone by the mother over her lifetime) is up to 30% of Uganda’ annual GDP.)
In an effort to address this situation, therefore, young people in business should be targeted with sexual reproductive health information and services including family planning.
Linking reproductive information and services with economic activation and labour skills development programmes will create greater opportunities for the young people to remain healthy and economically engaged, thereby saving huge health care costs.
Investing in reproductive health of the young people in business will contribute to a reduction in the unmet need for family planning, prevalence of unplanned pregnancies and result in increased savings on health care costs that would have been spent on managing these conditions.
Programmes like the Youth Enterprise Venture Capital Fund, Youth Livelihood, and financial literacy training must not focus on financial management alone but should also integrate information on sexual reproductive health in an effort to promote adoption of safer and healthier sexual practices among young people.
Furthermore, with sound reproductive health information and access to services, youthful customers will be more likely to utilise the financial products resulting in a win-win situation for both the young people and the financial institutions.
We should also strive to develop innovative ways to deliver reproductive health information and services to young people involved in business, for instance by having outreaches to their places of work.
The process of economic empowerment of young people can only be complete, if reproductive health challenges like unplanned pregnancies, teenage pregnancies, and HIV/AIDS are addressed.
The writer is the head of programmes of Straight Talk Foundation