Engaging Uganda’s Religious Leaders as Advocates for Sexuality Education
Uganda is characterised by a diversity of religious groups and practices, each with its own perceptions of sexuality education. As culture and religion are intertwined, many believers still practice some cultural values and norms to live harmoniously in their communities. Parents and religious leaders often have misconceptions of sexuality education, so there has been a gap in strengthening advocacy efforts to implement a sexuality education policy in Uganda.
As advocates, religious leaders have been left out of advocacy strategies to influence stakeholders to enact this policy. Yet they play an important role in smoothing the road of advocacy, if approached with information on the significance of sexuality education. Over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), 70% of the people in Uganda spend time visiting a place of worship. This indicates that religious leaders have the greatest contact with people, and if they spent a few minutes sensitizing people on sexuality education without contradicting their religious norms, the message would be received by the masses.
Sexuality education provides young people with the knowledge, skills, and efficacy to make informed decisions about their sexuality and lifestyle. This embraces menstrual hygiene management, body changes, abstinence, and reproductive health, as well at how to avoid sexual violence in communities or at home, to mention but a few.
Adolescents in the Eastern region of Uganda are at risk of teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), since there is silence on sexuality education at home, school, and places of worship. 16 million adolescent girls become mothers worldwide each year, the majority suffering consequences of unplanned pregnancies. In Uganda, girls are commonly perceived as a source of wealth, and society expects or forces girls to get married at very young ages, explaining a high teen birth rate of 211 per 1,000. Up to 31% of adolescents aged 15-19 are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. Only 12% of this age group uses contraceptives, yet maternal mortality among adolescent mothers is double the rate in other age groups.
“Let’s embrace parenting and break the silence and talk to our children about sexuality education and as religious leaders we could encourage parents during prayers.” – Sheikh Sulaiman Mugumba, Mayuge District
In Uganda, there is also a high incidence of abortion among pregnant adolescents. Studies show that 78% of female adolescents know someone who has had an abortion, and more than two-thirds of patients receiving care for abortion complications at local health centres are ages 15-19.
“We can teach our youths behavioral changes on top of abstinence and faithfulness to end early pregnancies.” – Rev. Fr. Patrick
As part of the My Voice My Rights program by Restless Development in partnership with African Youth and Adolescents Network (AfriYAN), I participated actively in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) dialogues with religious leaders in Mayuge and Jinja Districts. Through stimulating debates, we encouraged religious leaders to support sexuality education, creating a sharing and learning platform about the roles and responsibilities of religious leaders and how sexuality education impacts the health of young people. These conversations included leaders from the Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Anglican Church, born again churches, Seventh-day Adventist churches, and Islam.
“As religious leaders, we need to clearly understand the difference between Sexuality education and sex education in order to pass it on to our followers.” – Pastor, born again church
The outcomes from these SRHR dialogues with religious leaders included the following:
- We should have one correct SRHR message, but allow each religion to disseminate it in their own way, without going against their norms.
- SRHR is good and necessary for people from each faith; therefore, we ought to embrace it.
- SRHR ought to be done in the right space and at the right age, and competent information passed on by an expert.
- All stakeholders need to engage the media so that they pass on the correct SRHR information to people.
It was clear from our conversations that religious faith and sexuality education are not in contradiction with each other. We are hopeful that through the advocacy of their faith leaders, more Ugandan youth will learn about SRHR, and their communities and families will be strengthened as they make healthy decisions.