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Published: February 3rd 2010
Education is not a right in Uganda. Most little girls don't make it past primary school.
On Sunday, "Dr. Todd" from Omni-Med arrived and we finalized the details of the Village Health Team (VHT) training seminar that's happening this week.
Nine villages in Ntenjeru were asked to each nominate 3-4 people from their community to attend the 5-day long session. Volunteers from VOLSET, Peace Corps and Omni-Med, along with community leaders are presenting topics ranging from treatment of diseases to caring for pregnant women and babies. Once the training is over, the attendees are expected to go back to their communities and act as a liaison between the community and the health centres. They will educate, champion projects that improve community health facilities and keep up to date records on the health issues faced by the community.
At first I was doubtful that anyone would show up. The attendees aren't getting any compensation for their attendance or for the subsequent work that they're expected to do in their communities. I was proven wrong on the first day of class, when all 35 students showed up at on time, wearing their best clothes.
I sat at the front of the classroom, and looking back, everyone looked alert and engaged, soaking up every single thing that
School is back in, and the streets are filled with children in bright uniforms.
was said. They were animated, laughing, bantering with the teachers, and standing up to ask questions.
Some of the questions that were asked shocked me- for instance, in the session on family planning, many people in the class didn't know that birth control pills were taken orally.
It was the questions asked and issues raised in the "adolescent reproductive health" session that shook me the most.
Ariana (a VOLSET volunteer) began the session by asking the class to describe some of the sexual issues that young boys and girls are faced with. The immediate responses were expected- pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The responses that followed were a surprise to me.
A young girl who becomes pregnant here is immediately expected to drop out of school and is not permitted to return after she has the child. In many cases, her parents will feel disgraced and she'll be sent away from her village. Sexual abuse is common. If a girl is raped by an older man in the community, the parents will often make her marry the man who assaulted her.
Ariana told the class that they should encourage girls in their community to stay
Todd teaching the introductory Village Health Team session.
in school as long as they possibly can and return to school after the baby is born. She also told them that they should support their daughters and not allow them to marry men who have abused them. Her statements caused an uproar amongst the participants.
One man stood up. "Don't you think her presence in the classroom will encourage the other students to get pregnant?," he asked. Ariana shook her head. "The other girls and boys will already know that she is pregnant. Stigmatizing her and preventing her from getting an education won't change that."
Another woman rose. "Everyone will laugh at her. Her teacher will send her out of the class. There's nothing we can do about this, she will not be allowed to attend school."
Ariana turned to the woman- "Madam, if a grown woman is working in the field and she becomes pregnant, does she stop doing her work? Of course not, she continues to work as long as she is able." The class nodded in agreement. "For a young girl, going to school is her job. You must help her to continue to do her job by talking to the teachers and
Zac and John
Zac, a Peace Corps volunteer, and John, a VOLSET volunteer, take a break in between sessions at the VHT training.
the parents and helping them understand what is best for her and the community. If she stops her schooling, she will not make as much money when she is older and she will not be able to support her family."
Everyone continued to nod. I felt like crying. Ariana's example had completely changed the their perception of the issue.
In Uganda, girls account for 47% of total enrollment in primary school and 32% at the secondary level. Many girls do not continue their education because of the high cost of school fees, early pregnancies, and sexual violence. If Ariana's lesson was able to change a few minds, it may have a huge impact on the lives of the girls in these villages.
The next morning, the director of VOLSET asked the class to each tell a piece of news. One man stood. He had heard that there was a young girl in his community who had become pregnant. He planned to speak to her parents and her teacher to encourage them to allow her to continue her schooling.
The fact that this young girl now has an adult advocate in her community is an amazing thing.
Todd from Omni-Med, taking a break outside between sessions.
The Village Health Team concept is relatively new and has not been fully tested, but judging from what I saw in just a few short days, I'm inspired and optimistic that it will be a huge success.
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