At times, it is discouraging to teach sexual health education in Uganda. My personal philosophy regarding this topic is to educate pupils about the facts so they may prevent unwanted pregnancies or receiving/spreading STIs. It is my belief that abstinence only education puts kids at a disadvantage when faced with real situations. If somebody wants to behave in a certain way there is nothing I can say to prevent him from doing so. The most control I can have over that situation is to plant my voice in his and her head with information that can keep them healthy—or in the very least, keep those around them healthy.
It is easier for me to teach sexual health in America with this philosophy. I can talk to them about waiting until they are in a safe, loving, and healthy relationship. I can recommend they seek advice or guidance from a parent about possible birth control methods—if that were not an option for them, I would refer them to their primary care physician or Planned Parenthood to get on birth control. I would advise them to use condoms every time, knowing that any corner market, gas station, pharmacy, and grocery store sells them for relatively low costs. I would even inform them of the locations I know that give away condoms free. Above all, I would encourage them to wait until they are absolutely sure in their heart and mind that they are ready for sex, because once you open the door, there is no closing it behind you.
Those messages get complicated here. Set aside the fact that anytime I open my mouth, my brain must first filter, screen, and adjust each word so it makes sense to ESL pupils, making any lesson especially challenging. The message is further distorted because there really is not a period of time when kids date each other innocently in Uganda. It is rare to find a boy and girl even talking to one another outside of a debate during class. When two kids decide they like each other, there is no innocent hand holding, hugging, or even kissing. It often becomes an all or nothing situation. Relationships are vastly different from my native culture. As I discussed in a recent blog, love and marriage are not always the same in Uganda as they are in America. How can I teach about waiting for a loving, respectful relationship if I cannot point to an example to follow? I am in no way saying they don’t exist. There are respectful relationships, I am sure, but they are often hidden behind closed doors so they may as well be invisible. I could teach about waiting to have sex until marriage; that might reach some of my pupils. Yet, even marriage is different here. What point are two people considered married? So often, it is after they have a kid together then they decide to become official or are persuaded by the community to do the Introduction ceremony. I know there are too many socio-cultural factors bearing down on these kids telling them not to wait to deceive myself into believing a few talks about waiting from me will overtake those messages.
So, as I often do when I feel myself up against a cultural standard that I just cannot get my mind wrapped around, I take a step back…
I try to remember what the message I am trying to convey really is. In the case of sexual health education, I want a few outcomes: 1. Prevent the spread of STIs, 2. Prevent unwanted pregnancies, 2.5. Keep these girls in school by not getting unwanted pregnancies, 3. Establish a precedent for what a healthy sexual relationship looks like to prevent sexual abuse.
Why? Because I truly believe the spread of HIV can be prevented through education. Because I truly believe that overpopulation is slowly destroying this region. Because I truly believe that girls who make it through secondary school (that is to say, those who do not get pregnant before completion and have to drop out) will be capable of securing jobs, marry respectful husbands, and are less likely to produce more children than they can afford. Because rape and sexual violence are too common and these kids deserve better.
I am not entirely sure how to get to these outcomes yet. I am approaching the situation first by teaching about what sex is, how one can impregnate or become pregnant, the various STIs that exist (and the variety of ways to contract them,) and creating a clear picture for what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. I don’t know if my lessons will reach all of these students; I don’t know if it will prevent these things from happening to even those who the lessons reach.
Sometimes the most we can do is try. I know at the end of the day that these kids have me in their corner during the fight for a better future.