Uganda: Teenage Girls Gain Knowledge on HIV & AIDS and Sexual Health

 {Photo credit: Tadeo Atuhura/MSH}In six months, 485 girls in six schools in Mbale District received HIV & AIDS education.Photo credit: Tadeo Atuhura/MSH

When Sylvia Kabuya entered Mbale Progressive Secondary School in eastern Uganda, she knew little about HIV & AIDS, how it was transmitted, or where to get tested. The 16-year-old’s knowledge about the disease was based on conjecture passed among her peers. Less than 40 percent of Ugandan women aged 15 to 24 have comprehensive knowledge about HIV & AIDS, according to the 2013 Uganda Demographic Health Survey.

Yet teenage girls in Uganda, like much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, are among the most vulnerable groups for HIV infection. Adolescent girls are two to four times more likely to become infected than boys, for biological reasons, with gender discrimination, inequality, and poverty as contributing factors, UNICEF says. For example, adult males might lure impoverished teenage girls to engage in sex in exchange for money or material gifts.

In Uganda, young women generally become infected with HIV at an earlier age than young men (Figure 1). A community-based survey in 2012 using the Lot Quality Assurance Sampling methodology revealed that 12.4 percent of Ugandan youth under the age of 15 were sexually active.

The Strengthening Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/AIDS Response in Eastern Uganda (STAR-E) project (March 2009 - September 2015) operates in 12 districts, including Mbale District where Sylvia’s secondary school is located. A key focus of STAR-E, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by Management Sciences for Health (MSH), is providing HIV support and information to vulnerable groups, such as teenage girls, as well as other hard-to-reach and key populations. This has included outreach to young students residing in hostels with the aim of preventing new HIV infections.

STAR-E staff and health workers trained teachers and peer educators about abstinence, safe sexual practices, and HIV counseling and testing. In addition, they discussed HIV & AIDS with the students, the dangers of early pregnancy, managing peer pressure, and making the right choices for good health. Although teachers and health workers encourage abstinence, they also educate on and support condom use for those sexually active, and link any student infected with HIV to a health facility for antiretroviral treatment.

The program reached 485 girls in six schools, including 247 at Sylvia’s school, within six months, all in Mbale District. The students said they learned about how to avert HIV infection by delaying sexual debut or, if already sexually active, using condoms. They showed strong self-esteem and commitment to their futures.

Annette Abwoch, 15, said the HIV education program has empowered her to resist peer pressure and seek guidance from her teachers and parents if she is pressured into sex by male peers and adult men.

Sylvia agreed:

I am not scared by the pressure from boys and other girls to engage in early sex. I know my rights and am determined to fulfill my vision of completing my education.