It is 1960 in Uganda right now.
At least that's what it feels like in a bare, windy classroom in Nyakagyezi, a rural village 400 km from Kampala, where volunteers are imparting sexual health information that would be considered basic knowledge, or even archaic advice, to most Canadian teenagers. There is a drawing of the reproductive system. There are explanations of the menstrual cycle. There is a lot of focus on abstinence.
But the 100 or so 12- to 20-year-olds who have packed the room are listening with rapt attention. This could be because in Uganda, 24 per cent of female teenagers are either pregnant or have already given birth. Which, for Ugandan girls, almost always means becoming part of the the same cycle of poverty that trapped their own parents, and their grandparents, and so on.
"Here you see a class of 100 can graduate with only 30," explains 17-year-old Nicholas. "A lot of this has to do with pregnancy."
Early motherhood also exposes young women to the health risks of early childbirth, and HIV/AIDS. Uganda is home to 2.2 million orphans, nearly half of whom have lost one or both parents to the AIDS pandemic. In total, there are nearly 8 million vulnerable children in Uganda today, including the vast majority of the teens attending this workshop.
The workshops facilitators are members of Reach a Hand Uganda, a Kampala-based, youth-run organization that empowers teens to make more informed decisions regarding their health and to their futures - work that is beyond crucial in a country like Uganda, sometimes called a "country of children," where nearly half the population is under the age of 15. The answers being given today are literally saving lives: lowering the birth rate (which averages at six children per woman,) reducing the spread of STIs, and creating discussion in a country where sex ed is often taught via 1960s textbooks and well-meaning but uneducated family members.
"Many children in Uganda have wrong beliefs which they sometimes get from their grandparents and other elderly people in the community," reports Comfort, age 12.
Reach a Hand usually involves celebrity facilitators in its workshops, which makes this kind of learning even more enthralling for those in attendance. But in the end, the real star of the show is these teenagers' drive to solve the issues facing their families and communities, and to bring Uganda into the 21st century. This point is made when a 17-year-old named Ronald is asked whether his favourite part of the workshop was meeting Miss Uganda, one of the celebrity volunteers.
Smiling, he shakes his head no.
"It was learning about the menstrual cycle," he says. "We wanted that part to last forever."
Reach a Hand Uganda's workshop was sponsored by Beautiful World Canada, an organization that enables young African women to change their futures through education. To find out more about Beautiful World and the work they do, and to learn about the impact of sponsoring a student in Uganda, Rwanda or Sierra Leone, please visit www.beautifulworld.org.
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