The risks of being young in Uganda

Allen Kyendikuwa, 25, has direct experience of both accessing health services as a young person, and working to improve them for others. In this interview for World Sexual Health Day (4th September 2015) Allen shares what she believes the barriers to better health for young people are, and why Link Up’s youth-friendly services are vital.

AllenIn Uganda like in many countries, it’s difficult to talk about sex and relationships, and even more so for young people. The prevalence of HIV among 10-24 year olds is estimated to be 7.3% in Uganda, and there are also high rates of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. Safe spaces for young people to talk about sex, and receive youth-friendly services, are vital.

“A service for a young person is like a hug from a best friend. It is special, non-judgmental, non-discriminatory, healing, comforting, understanding and given genuinely,” says Allen. She’s a programme manager at the Uganda Youth Coalition on Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and HIV/AIDS (CYSRA-Uganda) leading their work on Link Up.

Allen knows all too well what it’s like to not receive a service like this. As a young expectant mother she attended mainstream health services that were tailored more to adults and married women. “So many women were judgmental to me,” she recalls. However, Allen persevered despite it being uncomfortable, because she knew very well that accessing those services was “[my] sexual and reproductive health right.”

The fear of judgement or breach of confidentiality in health services does deter many young people though from accessing services. To address this challenge, Link Up started work in 2013 to provide “youth friendly” centres and train youth outreach workers to share sexual health and rights messages with their peers, who had been previously much harder to reach. Link Up is an ambitious project that is improving the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of more than one million young people in Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda.

Naguru Teenage Information and Health Centre holds an outreach day at Kinawataka, a suburb of Kamapala. They provide information, condoms and HIV testing services.View the complete photo gallery from Link Up's work in Uganda.

Having young people at the helm of providing services and sharing information with their peers is great, says Allen, but “closing the gap does not necessarily mean employing only young people.” An open attitude by health providers is essential, so that young people receive appropriate and quality comprehensive health services and are not subjected to the same negativity that that Allen experienced in accessing antenatal care. A dedicated youth friendly space, like the ones Link Up provides is also important. As Allen explains hypothetically: “It is difficult to sit in line with my parents’ best friend waiting for a service such as gonorrhea treatment.”

Self-esteem, confidence and feeling comfortable are important for enabling young people to stand up for their rights and demand quality services. In Allen’s view being young itself is a risk factor: “In most cases, young people are still discovering themselves and hence do not know their worth and full potential, this puts them into a position to be undermined, mistreated and manipulated.”

“We can change this by giving young people more information and power, to let them know what their rights are and how to fully exercise them to fully participate in decisions that concern their health.”

This month’s Youth Summit

On 12 September 2015, Allen will be on one of hundreds of young people that will gather in London for a summit on the future of our world. The Youth Summit is an event designed for young people by young people, and is being held by the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID). It is a chance for young people to get their voices heard on the global issues they care about.  See here: https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/youth-summit

Find out more about Link Up here, and view the complete photo gallery here.