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What’s life like for vulnerable adolescent girls in Northern Uganda?

It started as business. Juliet (not her real name to protect her) was already addicted to her work. One of her clients called her and requested she undress for him. Refusing was not an option for her family survival. Juliet was only 15- years- old when she first started to work as a commercial sex worker. She was living in Layibi, sub county of Gulu district with her three other siblings. Her father passed away when Juliet was still young, and her mother left her children to be with another man in Sudan. As the oldest sister of four, Juliet felt responsible to take care of her siblings. With no support from her parents and community, Juliet sought advice from her friends. Her friends introduced Juliet to an “easy money per night” job.

For Juliet, a vulnerable young girl with limited resources, becoming an adolescent commercial sex worker seemed “the only way out” from abject poverty.  What makes Juliet’s story particularly depressing is that it is common among Ugandan adolescent girls to engage in commercial sex for survival. The sad reality is that adolescent girls living in poor and rural communities are especially vulnerable as they may lack supportive social networks.

“Negative peer influence among adolescent girls and lack of support from parents and teachers hinder children to make right decisions,” said Fortune Merry Atima, a secondary school student in Sacred Heart Secondary School, during the Adolescent Girl Agenda (AGA) intergenerational dialogues. She asked adolescent caregivers to provide adequate support, while advising her peers to stay in school, encourage each other, and work towards fulfilling their dreams.

With support from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Organization of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA) Uganda organized the AGA dialogues, a platform for exchange of ideas on how to address challenges faced by adolescents and young people. The dialogues are held between adolescent girls and various stakeholder groups which represents three generations seated in the same space to harness the energies of the young with the wisdom of the old.

The northern region dialogue was held on November 9, followed by the Stakeholders Consultative Meeting on the AGA on November 10, 2017. At Bomah Hotel in Gulu, over 300 stakeholders including adolescent girls, government officials, development partners, law enforcement officers, civil society organizations, religious and cultural institutions, teachers, and parents, gathered and discussed the status and issues of adolescent girls in the Northern region. The dialogues have given the participants an opportunity to share information with adolescent girls and equip them with information and skills to enable them to “live their dreams.” The consultative meeting also developed and share stakeholder’s commitments on the actions they take to promote empowerment of adolescent girls.

Empowering adolescent girls

Due to the long history of poverty and lack of education, many adolescent girls in poor and rural communities expose themselves to a range of risks, including drug and alcohol use, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual and gender based violence, school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, and child marriage. In fact, UNFPA’s Adolescent and Youth Dashboard – Uganda indicates that the percentage of women, aged 20-24, who gave birth before age 18 is high at 33.0 percent with only 21.5 percent of secondary education completion rate (2017).  The teenage pregnancy rate is higher among those women who live in rural areas (36.2 percent) compared to ones from urban areas (23.7 percent). Adolescent girls are more vulnerable compared to their male counterparts. In some rural communities, it is not rare for parents to discourage their daughters going to school. What’s worse, the parents often force them to get married for dowry.

“We [stakeholders] are appealing to parents to let girls be girls to let them finish school and let them get married when they are mature,” said Ms. Beat Bisangwa, Executive Director of the OAFLA Uganda.

The adolescent stage is the beginning of a protracted risk period during which young people are vulnerable and have little or no critical social, health and economic outcomes. Lack of adequate prenatal care during the adolescent stage may account for the majority of negative health outcomes for the adolescents.

“Ensuring that everyone successfully navigate the stage of this [adolescent] life would help break the cycle of poverty,” said Hon. Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, Minister of State for Gender, Labor and Social Development (Youth and Children Affairs), while delivering remarks on behalf of H.E Janet Museveni, the National Champion of Adolescent Girls Agenda. 

According to a World Bank study, if all female primary school dropouts in Uganda complete primary school alone, their additional contribution to Uganda’s economy over their lifetime would equal to 13 percent of annual GDP, and for secondary school, it would be equal to 34 percent. On the contrary, when an adolescent girl becomes pregnant, the annual income that the teenage mother loses over her lifetime is estimated to be 30 percent of annual GDP (2011).

The clear and convincing evidence shows that investing in adolescent girls in the areas of education, health services, reproductive health and financial literacy improves socio-economic outcomes not only for girls and young women, but also for their communities, county, and the next generation.

At the stakeholders consultative meeting, the United Nations (UN) and in particular UNFPA as a leading development partner for adolescents, pledged to continue supporting the government of Uganda to confront the challenges our young people face to ensure inclusive development for the country.

“It is critical that stakeholders here today take up their rightful positions and deliver for adolescents girls,” said Ms. Miranda Tabifor, Deputy Representative UNFPA Uganda.

“We must see more and more girls completing primary and secondary education and joining tertiary institutions, we must see less girls getting pregnant before the age of 19 years, must reduce the number of girls getting into marriage before 18 years,” she added.

The UN commits to the 2030 Agenda, aligned with the Uganda Vision 2040, to leave no one behind and to prioritize investment in girls as the smart choice for the health and prosperity of all Uganda with the government, the UN system and civil society to make this vision a reality. 

- Written by Mina Nozawa