"It is very important for youth to learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights. They will be able to make well informed decisions about their life, they will tell the truth from false, and so much more."
Even prior to 2020, 132 million girls were out of school, and only 66% of countries had achieved gender parity in education. Some of the major barriers to girls education include severe poverty, lack of sanitation support for menstrual hygiene, forced early marriage leading to early pregnancy, and gender-based violence. That's why an understanding of sexual-reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is so crucial to helping girls finish school.
Catherine is a 16-year-old secondary school student living in Uganda. As an adolescent girl, Catherine recognizes that girls face significant disadvantages - but she also knows that knowledge is the most powerful tool they have to overcome them. She’s committed to becoming a mentor for children and youth, today through her youth group, and in the future as a teacher. Here she shares her thoughts on youth sexual health and rights education.
My name is Catherine and I am 16 years old. I live in Uganda. I stay with my brother James, my sister Mariam, my father and stepmother. Last year at school, we had sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) training. I learned very many new things.
On sexual health information and stigma
It is very important for youth to learn about sexual reproductive health and rights. They will be able to make well informed decisions about their life, they will tell the truth from false, and so much more.
But stigma is for real, it exists, it’s there in my community. Parents are uncertain of the right age to begin discussing SRHR matters with their children. Others feel shy talking about SRHR matters. The fear lies with thinking that talking about them will be spoiling one’s child yet in the actual sense, it helps the child to become knowledgeable and be able to handle every situation that the child encounters. Children too, they fear sharing their experiences with adults in order to be guided - like how to manage menstrual hygiene for girls. By consulting their peers, they can easily be misguided.
" I learned that boys and girls, men and women are different but they are also equal in their strength and relationships."
On what she’s learned about sexual health and rights
I learned about drug abuse, how to assist victims of drug abuse, how to deal with peer pressure, and how to manage emotions.
I learned that it was important to choose to live a healthy lifestyle by protecting my body from any form of harm and any forms of risky behaviour.
I also learned that it is important to stand up for what one believes and do what is right, even if it is not popular and even if it is hard.
I learned skills to negotiate relationships and to do the right things, in the right time, and doing them correctly.
I am now more empathetic to children and people experiencing the consequences of having HIV and AIDS, female genital mutilation or early marriages and pregnancies.
I now know and I have examples to convince someone that early marriages and early pregnancies are harmful for young girls whose bodies are not yet ready to bear a child and deliver a baby successfully.
Importantly, I learned that boys and girls, men and women are different but they are also equal in their strength and relationships and that the challenge is with managing our relationships with respect and dignity.
On the challenges that girls face to their sexual health and rights
We still have parents who agree to let their children be taken by men before the age of 18 in return for money or property. We have cases of such in our community. Corruption and bribery worsens early marriages because men caught for defilement are either forgiven by parents and if arrested, are released in a short period before they are even presented to court for justice.
I studied with girls who got pregnant before the age of 15. They were expelled from school as soon as the administration discovered it. They lost the chance of completing their studies. While schools could re-admit them after delivery, such girls felt shy returning to the school because of ‘shame.’ I have not heard of any of those children joining other schools either.
Some girls are raised in very poor families that cannot manage needs like giving them sanitary towels, scholastic materials and basic school fees. When girls poorly manage their menses, they contract infections.
"There is no greater thing than mentoring a child and helping them pave the way for their future. Teachers have inspired me and I want to be like them, to do the same."
On mentorship and making a difference
We need community classes to empower girls and mothers on the importance of education and also teach them about sexual and reproductive health rights. I actually have asked my friends to begin interesting our community peers to teach them about SRHR on Sundays, using the skills we acquired.
Me, when I grow up, I want to be a teacher. I love being a teacher - I like the way teachers conduct themselves, and most of all, they mentor. There is no greater thing than mentoring a child and helping them pave the way for their future. Teachers have inspired me and I want to be like them, to do the same.
Like Catherine, youth around the world are taking the lead
Catherine is one of 770 youth in 30 youth groups around the world who are taking the lead to promote food security, understand their sexual-reproductive health and rights, and advocate for children in their communities through Canadian Feed The Children programming. Learning about sexual-reproductive health and rights is a critical tool to help girls understand, navigate, and self-advocate for their health and safety. However, they cannot do this in isolation.
That’s why a gender lens is a critical part of CFTC’s partnerships with communities around the world, to help women gain access to land and credit, to give girls safe spaces to manage their health and complete their education, and support entire communities (including boys and men) in understanding the critical role gender equality plays in community resilience. Thank you Catherine for sharing your knowledge with us!