By Rebecca Birungi
Uganda is one of the countries with the youngest populations in the world. According to the Uganda Bureau of statistics (UBOS) 2013 Statistical Abstract, about 70% of the population is aged 24 years and below; almost half of the population (52%) is below the age of 15.
With this high proportion of young people it is not hard toimagine the challenges that youngpeople face. One of the most pressing challenges facing young people in Uganda today is the issue of teenage pregnancy.
In Uganda, twenty four percent of girls between 15 and 19 are either pregnant or has had a baby, (UDHS 2011). The highest rates occur in East Central region at 31.6%, Eastern at 30.1%, Karamoja at 29.7% and West Nile at 26.4%. Teenage pregnancy is one of the most devastating reproductive health challenges and has negative effects on the girl child, community and the country at large.
For most of these young women, pregnancy and childbirth are neither planned nor wanted. There are several factors thatcontribute to teenage pregnancy: Girls may be forced to marry and bear childrenearly;some do not know how to avoid a pregnancy, or are unable to obtaincontraceptives.
Underlying all these issues is the fact that many young people simply do not have access to accurate information and services.
Many young people become sexually active before they know how to avoid teenage pregnancies and. Peer pressure and pressure to conform to stereotypes increase the likelihood of early and unprotected sexual activity.
Young people have so many myths around sex and pregnancy. According to a survey by UNFPA and Straight Talk Foundation carried out in Kampala, Mityana, Mubende and Wakiso districts, while70 per cent of boys and 54 per cent of girls start sexual intercourse as early as 15 years, 50 per cent of them believe a girl can’t get pregnant if she has sex while standing.
Forty six percent believe a girl cannot get pregnant the first time she has sex. These districts which are considered almost urban; imagine what the situation is like then, in more rural areas.
What be done then to make sure that young people can access accurate information to avoid falling in the trap of believing in myths and misconceptions which will lead to teenage pregnancy?
We need to start with individuals, families and communities. Parents and other community members need to educate girls and boys about sexuality. Even in rural areas we need to find means of communication that are applicable to these specific contexts, whether it is use of music drama and other forms of communication that young people use.
We need to find the young people in places where they congregate, whetherit is at sports events, in churches and mosques and through youth groups.
Families and communities must not hide their heads in the sand; theymustacknowledgethat some young people are sexually active and need help to deal with this situation. Families and communities must therefore be engaged and involved in discussing meaningful ways of addressing teenage pregnancy early marriage and related issues.
The use of media, in particular radio, also presents a great opportunity to reach the young people both in rural and urban areas. Radio is one of the most powerful tools through which young people will be reached with health information on a wide range of issues.
Communication for Development Foundation (CDFU) is currently implementing a radio programme, Healthy Choices. The radio programme is promoting discussions among listeners including young people. They listen to the radio and then discuss in community groups the programmes that are aired on the radio.
Coupled with this is the use of atoll free hotline through which young people are able to ask for and receive information on pregnancy and other reproductive health issues. But even more can be done. For instance we know that many of these young people consider radio presenters as rolemodels and believe in them.
We need to empower these presenters with reproductive healthinformation, such that as they talk,present music and other forms of entertainment to young people they can slot in messages on how to prevent teenage pregnancy and other issues.
Worldwide, young people are more connected than any other generation. Use of Facebook and other social media platforms is so widespread. We need to tap into this and use the social media platforms to send catchy messages that will resonate with young people. And as programmers we must come down to their level; use their language, terms and slang to reach out and connect with young people.
We also need to have sexuality education programmes in schools and at health facilitiesto help young people develop life skills to deal with their thoughts, feelings and experiences. This information should be provided to young people in a friendly way and while ensuring their privacy.
We cannot afford to have young people die, drop out of school and have a bleak future when we have the means at our disposal to do something about it.
The writer is a Behaviour Change Communication Specialist at Communication for Development Foundation Uganda