The world is finally recognizing what we’ve known for a long time: Young people can be extraordinary catalysts for change when they work together to empower themselves and their peers. Together for Girls is fortunate enough to collaborate with many of these young people in our daily work. In honor of International Youth Day – established by the United Nations to recognize the important contributions of the world’s youth in establishing peaceful, equitable and prosperous societies –we’re highlighting the ideas and contributions of five of our talented Every Hour Matters Youth Champions from Kenya and Uganda. These five individuals are working for youth-led organizations dedicated to violence prevention and response, sexual and reproductive health, and girls’ empowerment.
Together for Girls: What inspired you to get involved with this work?
Christine Adero: I pursued this field of work because I believe it is my fundamental obligation as a woman to support other girls as I know there is room high up the ladder for all girls to climb if we them gave them the opportunity to reach their full potential. Growing up in high school, I barely had the opportunity of being linked to mentors as everything was always centered on books. Looking back, it makes me realize how important it is to cultivate girls at a very young age, which is one of my driving forces in my work in empowering the girl child.
Patrick Mwesigye: My inspiration dates back to my childhood days, when I witnessed my own sister suffer from the effects of sexual violence, giving birth at 12 years old, dropping out of school and suffering stigma and discrimination from not only family members, but also community members. By 19 years old, she had given birth to three kids. This shuttered her dreams and still today, she lives with the effects of the problems she faced while in her teenage years. Over the years, I have crossed path with many adolescent girls that have undergone similar experiences and even much worse. After witnessing both the physical and psychological violence coupled with stigma and discrimination undergone by my elder sister and the many adolescent girls I have met, I decided to stand out of the many and to be counted by taking action to stop this suffering.
TfG: Why do you think it is so important for young people to be involved in girls’/youth empowerment and violence prevention work?
Beatrice Muema: Young people will be like role models to other young people. If they are involved in girls’/youth empowerment then they will participate better in their own protection and the protection of others. In addition, young people learn best from each other. When they are involved in empowerment and violence prevention work, their message will sink deeper to their peers as opposed to an adult’s.
Patrick Mwesigye: Today, the world is home to over 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 10- 24, and the majority live in low- and middle-income countries. Our young people today, though largely faced and vulnerable to the world’s major social, economic and political challenges, still remain a major force to reckon. Young people are energetic, enthusiastic, and more than ever before willing to directly engage in opportunities that show up.
TfG: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your work?
Beatrice Muema: In the African tradition, children belonged to the community and it was the responsibility of the community to protect children. Nowadays the child belongs to the parents alone and this has exposed them to abuse. People who are charged with the responsibility of protecting children are the same people who are abusing them.
Collins Kibet: Poor reception by the community who still believe that a male fighting for the health rights of girls is like an outcast of the community. Talking about sexuality education is also still a taboo in many communities and has also been a challenge throughout my work.
TfG: What have been some of the biggest rewards of your work?
Patrick Mwesigye: Working with and bringing a smile to the faces of adolescent girls and young women that we work with has been one of my biggest rewards. When I see them, regaining hope for example to go back to school, to earn an income from our vine pads project and they are able to feed their babies, to me this is great, having the confidence to seek and utilize the available health care services including contraceptives services, HIV services, MNCH services, health promotion and education information among others.
My work has also provided a platform for adolescents and young people in Uganda to participate and shape policy processes like the recent review of the national adolescent health policy and service standard guidelines. Every time I see young people engage and share their views in policy processes and define direction going forward, I am convinced that we are on the right path.
Collins Kibet: Being a champion for women’s health rights has gained me a lot of mileage in encouraging and mentoring other young people for the course. So far I have a network of young people who are addressing the needs of women and we have been able to successfully respond to ten post-rape service care requests and we have assisted 10 young girls to have their rights addressed by authorities.
TfG: What would you say is your country’s biggest challenge related to girls’/youth empowerment, and/or sexual violence prevention, and how can it be addressed?
Beatrice Muema: There is a lot of ignorance in the community especially when it comes to issues of child sexual abuse. Most cases remain unreported because of the issues of taboo in the community. For instance, a family will choose to remain silent on a case of incest because it is a taboo to talk about issues of sexuality. There is need for greater awareness at the community level to ensure that the community embraces child protection.
Christine Adero: There is a minimal level of involvement of the youth in decision making on the matters that may affect them. The representation of youth in the parliament or political positions is barely noticeable, and yet nearly 78% of Uganda’s population is 30 years and below. If they are not included in the participation of political and civic decision-making, we are bound to lose out on a lot.
When it comes to sexual violence prevention, in my opinion society is dealing with only one part of the problem. We are quick to teach girls safety and not teach boys respect. We do not teach boys to respect a girl’s “NO” and not try and sexually assault them when they are not interested and yet we are constantly telling girls to dress “decent” and not try and “tempt” the boys/men. This already creates an imbalance. I therefore believe that just like we are empowering the girls, boys should also have empowerment programs created for them as well so we can raise a generation of respectful ladies and gentlemen.
Patrick Mwesigye: Our biggest challenge is lack of political will to prioritize these issues. Political leaders in my country have much power to cause change especially in ensuring that laws against sexual violence are enforced. But to many of them, such issues are not a priority. One way to address this issue is through increased interventions to engage political leaders in dialogue and support them to understand the power they possess to address these issues.
Winnie Mwongeli: Equal opportunities for the both genders – you find girls get less or no opportunities when it comes to power, explanation, education, attention, etc. and this limits them and make them less. This can be addressed by giving equal opportunities to both genders.
TfG: What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in pursuing a similar type of career as you?
Christine Adero: All I can say is, know what you want, go for what you want and trust your “hustle.” Many young people are interested in quick success without investing a lot of time and effort. They often feel the pressure to achieve a lot as soon as they start a career rather than enjoying the journey of building one. Like they say, patience pays.
TfG: As a young person in this field, what advice would you give to adults in the field?
Beatrice Muema: It is important to mentor the young people in this field because they have the potential of doing greater things. All they need is your support. Children are the leaders of tomorrow and they should be nurtured to bring the best out of them without imposing own values on them.
Collins Kibet: I would encourage adults to embrace the efforts of young people and give us a conducive environment too, for what we are doing is of great importance to them as well.
TfG: Give us a prediction. Looking ahead, what new achievements do you want to see in your country in the next five years? What gives you hope for the future?
Christine Adero: There is scarcity of jobs and job creation opportunities, which pushes some of the young people into unlawful activities like selling drugs, stealing, and prostitution among others. However, what gives me hope is how innovative the youth in Uganda are…they are no longer waiting on the government to create jobs but are rather becoming the job creators themselves.
Collins Kibet: My anticipation for my country Kenya is to see it respect women’s health and empower them with the resources necessary for their development. What give me hope are the current policymaking efforts by all sectors including women themselves to see women develop and become empowered.
About the Interviewees:
Christine Adero, Program Officer, Girl Child Network Uganda
Patrick Mwesigye, Founder and Team Leader, Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum
Beatrice Muema, Team Leading Counselor, Childline Kenya
Collins Kibet, Project Coordinator, Socially Organized Educative Team C.B.O.
Winnie Mwongeli, Counselor at Childline Kenya