By Quinn Abenakyo
Today, Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate International Women’s Day. This year’s global theme “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change” has been localized by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to Empowering Women through Innovative Approaches to Social Protection: A Pre-requisite for Inclusive and Sustainable Development”.
Both themes focus on identifying ways in which we can use innovation to positively impact the lives of women and girls, by removing barriers that stand in the way of them living fulfilling lives, free from fear, discrimination and inequality.
Coming from Busoga region in Eastern Uganda, I know firsthand what happens when girls do not have adequate social protection. One of the most significant consequences is that many girls have their dreams destroyed because they get pregnant at an early age. According to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey 2016 report, one in four girls (25%) aged 15-19 in Uganda are either pregnant or have had a child. In Busoga region, the teenage pregnancy rate stands at 21% while in other parts of the eastern region such as Bukedi and Bugisu, the percentage is much higher at 30 percent!
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), for a young girl, childbirth comes with a high risk of complications. A girl between the age of 15 and 19 is twice more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in her 20’s.
But teenage pregnancy is not just a health issue; it affects other aspects of girls’ lives. Teenage girls who become pregnant often drop out of school and are unable to complete their education, thus reducing their chances of finding employment in the future.
In many instances, society blames this teenage mother; the pregnancy is considered her fault because she is “badly behaved”. But girls do not make themselves pregnant! One of the main reason girls get pregnant is because of child marriage; girls are married off by their families and communities in exchange for gifts and money and usually to much older men.
As a young woman myself, I am disturbed by this state of affairs and feel that we must do more to change the situation for Uganda’s girls.
We need to come up with more innovative ideas that can be turned into powerful solutions. Solutions that can enable communities do more to protect girls from child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Solutions to enable girls receive accurate information on how to protect themselves from teenage pregnancy and enable boys and men to work collaboratively with girls and women to prevent gender based violence and other forms of injustice.
For instance, I have recently learnt about Safepal, an app developed by young people who are supported by UNFPA. SafePal helps young helps girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 19 in slum areas of Kampala to report sexual and gender based violence in schools and other public spaces. The app also has a provision by which survivors can be referred to receive services.
At the Miss Uganda Foundation, we conduct outreaches to schools under a project called Keep a Girl Child in School. We are working with schools to track girls who drop out of school and come up with solutions to ensure they how they can be supported to stay in school.
These are examples of the innovative solutions that are out there. But we can do more.
I invite you to join me and my fellow queens and partners as we look forward to creating a future in which innovation creates opportunities for Uganda’s women and girls to play an active role in building the future of our country.
The writer is Miss Uganda and Miss World Africa 2018