In March, WMI began a 10-week “Girls Group” program to empower 15-16 year old girls to engage in conversations about healthy behaviors and responsible life skills. The program runs on a weekly basis, led by the WMI Fellow with the aid of a Lugisu translator. The central tenet behind Girls Group is that all girls have the right to access accurate, unbiased information about reproductive health and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Empowering girls to engage freely in conversations about this information, by integrating discussion with participatory games and activities, is fundamental to helping them protect themselves against unplanned pregnancy and infection.
Through our Girls Group sessions, we found that there are a number of misconceptions about reproductive health not only among the girls, but among the community at large! There are many fears that HIV is spread through close physical contact with infected individuals (i.e. sleeping in the same bed, kissing, or sharing food); the girls were surprised to hear that was false! At the start of the program, some held false beliefs that taking oral contraceptives would incapacitate a woman from bearing children in the future; in response, the program promoted the responsible use of birth control once a woman is ready to be sexually active. Addressing these misconceptions allowed the girls to understand some basic truths about reproductive health, and importantly to pass this knowledge to their sisters, mothers, and peers. Homework was given at the end of every group meeting that encouraged the girls to act as community ambassadors for reproductive health information.
Another important take-away from the program was that these girls face immeasurable pressures to engage in sexual activity before they may be ready to do so. The hurdles to resisting these pressures are formidable when they see their peers behaving in ways that reinforce the status quo. One of the most common pressures arises from what are termed “sugar daddies,” who are older men that give younger girls gifts (i.e. a new phone, new clothes, money for snacks and food) in order to win their favor and solicit them for companionship and oftentimes sex. These gifts can be difficult to resist, especially for girls who are coming from families who live very simply. Many girls observe their friends accepting such gifts, and it seems that the friends who accept move on to a higher quality of life. Other, more subtle, solicitations may come from street vendors or even matatu (minibus) drivers who take advantage of girls who appear to come from families with little money. These men may offer free food or free fare in exchange for sexual favors. Finally, there is the ever-present pressure from boys their own age, some of whom see no fault in maintaining multiple partners at the same time. A theme we maintained throughout Girls Group was that resisting these types of negative pressures and making sound life decisions requires three important skills: being educated about the risks and pressures that exist, building a support system that can guide you to making good decisions, and having the confidence within yourself to stand up to pressures when you encounter them.
A graduation ceremony was held on May 22nd to celebrate the girls’ completion of the program. We culminated the program by playing a game of group tag that illustrated the challenges of avoiding negative pressures, followd by a game of snake tag that illustrated the positive effect a single individual or role model can have on the community. We discussed how the girls can act as role models to their peers and family members now that they are equipped with invaluable knowledge about reproductive health.
We ended our ceremony by presenting each girl with a certificate of achievement, passing around some sweet snacks, and giving each girl a small gift. The girls expressed their appreciation for the program, and that they are happy WMI will continue the program with another group of girls come June. They remarked that learning about and discussing these topics helped them grow and gain the confidence they need to stand up to risky behaviors. Sugar daddies, take note: step foot in Buyobo and you’ll find an empowered group of girls armed with knowledge and ready to stand up for themselves!