3 June 2016

Uganda: Why Is It So Hard for Young Women in Uganda to Carry a Condom?

Photo: Capital FM
Michael Soi's artwork is being used as condom covers to promote safe sex among the youth.

When Esther Namanya (20), a student at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, went to a supermarket to buy a condom she could not find the type she wanted. She had to enquire at the counter if they had the type of condom she was looking for. Overhearing her enquiry, some people in the supermarket started laughing at her in amusement.

But why shouldn't a young woman buy and carry condoms in her bag? Our culture has done us an injustice.

Traditionally women in some African communities have been brought up not to show a man that they are in control.

"This is overrated," says Esther. "Condom use is a sign of responsibility and I believe that if a girl carries a condom, it means she values her life more than anything."

Then why is it so hard?

UNAIDS data indicates that 570 young women aged between 15 and 24 years are infected with HIV every week in Uganda. This could be due in part to the fact that young women have little or no say over using condoms.

According to Ugandan culture, it is against the principles of a moral girl to buy and carry a condom in her bag. She would be called a 'bitch', a 'whore' and 'uncultured'. The community calls it an abomination. It has the same views on women getting pregnant before marriage.

Some young women at the university are at high risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections because they are involved in transactional sex, and having sex for money or gifts reduces their bargaining power for safer sex. But these young women are educated and should be empowered to make an informed choice, thus being able to negotiate for safer sex.

However there still seems to be widespread ignorance and lack of confidence among many girls when it comes to safer sex. Speaking to rural girls and urban girls, surprisingly there seems to be no difference between them as far as negotiation for safer sex is concerned.

Some are shy, while some are materialistic. Instead of bargaining for safer sex, some girls worry that if they upset a man, he won't give her presents or freebies.

Sex education is vital

Young women need education to learn how to negotiate for safer sex, but parents have failed to talk about sex with their teenage children. They have handed over their responsibilities to TV and the internet.

Many young people in Uganda fear pregnancy more than acquiring HIV. They think that because antiretroviral treatment is available for HIV, no one can tell that you are sick. But pregnancy shows and that is the concern for many young women in Uganda.

I believe taking charge of your life is crucial and all this can be prevented if condoms are used consistently.

Christine Namutebi, a peer educator with the Link Up project in Uganda, says she has been teaching fellow young women how to negotiate for safer sex by providing them with condoms. Christine has been empowered to talk about condoms and has the confidence to negotiate for their use during sex. This is the kind of empowerment that young women need in Uganda today.

Empowering young women

Although the high HIV prevalence rate among young people can be attributed to increased poverty levels in the country, a lack of negotiation skills for safer sex is a contributing factor that should not be overlooked.

Last year, Uganda's ethics minister Simon Lokodo said it was promiscuous to put condoms in hotels and public places, arguing it will prompt people to sin. He seems to forget that people will sin anyway, so why not provide them with means of protecting themselves?

To stop 570 more girls getting infected every week in Uganda, young women must be empowered to negotiate safer sex. For this to happen, there are some creative strategies that can be taken. These include:

Parents talking about sex with their teenage girls and boys.

Involving young men and letting them know of their responsibilities to themselves and their girlfriends.

Making it a policy to provide sex education in schools and talk about sex in the community with young people. This calls for more government funding on youth empowerment initiatives, especially on HIV.

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