“Do Boys Have That Too?”: SRH Classes for Boys in Rural Uganda
In Eastern Uganda, when a teenage girl becomes pregnant, she will stop attending school and instead, begin a life rearing children and looking after the family home and land. Teenage pregnancy remains high in Uganda, where more than one-third of girls give birth before the age of 18. Predictably, this is higher in rural areas. As well as teenage pregnancy, women and girls here face many sexual and reproductive health (SRH) challenges throughout their lives, including sex in exchange for “necessities,” poor menstrual hygiene, and a lack of access to family planning methods. This is why teaching and empowering girls from a young age about sexual and reproductive health and rights is a must. As part of the small grassroots organisation Women in Leadership (WIL) Uganda, based in Busembatia, for the last three months I have been doing just that across a number of schools.
Yet, for all the prevalent issues, including men’s refusal to wear condoms or sugar daddies who coerce sex from young girls in exchange for school fees, men have a crucial role to play. In Uganda, men can act as barriers to women accessing modern contraceptive methods. This is due to pervasive gender inequality, but also because men have rarely been involved in reproductive health programmes. Empowering young girls and teaching them about their rights and how to protect themselves is a must, but this needs to be accompanied by programmes for boys, for they are the men of tomorrow.
Teenage boys have their own questions and worries. Alongside learning about gender equality and how to treat and respect girls, they need answers to normal adolescent questions about the world of sex and relationships. The majority of students in Uganda board, and it is in their dorms where boys can share worries and stories. In a school system that aggressively pushes abstinence-only sex education, few other questions receive answers. The boys I work with ask questions in class; however, it is through the question box that I am able to learn about their real worries. The curriculum goes ahead as planned, but can be moulded around the questions, many of which are relatable to teenage boys the world over:
What are the dangers of family planning? I want to know the importance of family planning.
What are some of the diseases that attack the reproductive system? How do we protect our bodies from sexual diseases?
What can make someone fear having sexual intercourse when he is normal?
Other studies in Eastern Uganda have found similar issues. Male students lack basic knowledge of sex and reproductive health. Additionally, many boys fear sex. As a result of the culture’s emphasis on abstinence, they fear their interest in it and desire to have it. Questions about what is “normal” are therefore very common, and make up over a quarter of the questions I receive. Many of the boys I have taught here in the Iganga district had never heard about menstruation before, so I scrapped by original lesson plan for one on basic reproductive biology. The session gave rise to questions such as “Does it happen to boys too?”, “Is it caused by a sexually transmitted disease?”, and even “Can it result in death?” These boys range in age from 13 to 17, yet had no idea of the importance of menstruation and how it affects the women in their lives. The taboo prevails. I feel proud to have taught them about menstruation, yet I worry about the other boys in the school who have not opted into SRH classes. Another barrier to educating boys: SRH classes are optional.
Teaching this class is not without its challenges. Getting boys to show up after a long school day can be hard, and getting anyone to show up during football training is nearly impossible. Meanwhile, topics such as gender-based violence (GBV) can be difficult to discuss. This is all the more reason to tackle them. Half of Ugandan women (51%) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partners. Seeking justice is almost impossible, especially for a community’s poorest women. The task can seem insurmountable when I stand, aware of my young-white-female-ness, in front of a group of school boys who in all likelihood have different views and values than mine. While “a woman showing a man respect” was not the answer I had hoped for in response to “What are some signs of a good relationship?”, being able to have debates about those signs and about victim-blaming in rape cases is more than I could have hoped for.
Surprisingly, the boys were not horrified, but rather fascinated, when learning about menstruation and family planning methods for the first time. In discussions and case studies with them afterwards, I learned that they now feel equipped to teach their classmates and siblings. We have watched local short films on teenage pregnancy and discussed the challenges faced by teenage mothers. I am aware this is a self-selecting group; not all their classmates share their particular interest and enthusiasm to join SRH classes and discussions. Yet, boys can be engaged, and this is why SRH education is so important for all students in all schools.