Livelihood projects encourage independence for Ugandan youth

UYAHF implements livelihood projects to equip young people with marketable skills, such as handbag-making. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Half of Uganda’s population is under 15 years old and they are particularly vulnerable to the HIV epidemic.

Fortunately, young people are empowered to take control of their sexual health because Ugandan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offer livelihood projects and education initiatives focused on HIV prevention.

Young Ugandans (ages 0 to 24 years) are a high-risk age group and account for over 69 percent of the country’s population. This demographic is particularly susceptible to HIV infection, the sexually transmitted human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.

Ibrahim Batambuze, communications and advocacy officer of Reach a Hand Uganda, an NGO devoted to educating young people about reproductive health and rights, said minors often lack knowledge on matters of sexual health and HIV prevention.

“When you marry off someone who is a minor, they don’t have the knowledge, rather they don’t have the bargaining power to negotiate for safer sex, to negotiate for livelihoods, and to negotiate when they should have other things where they can be empowered, for example education,” Batambuze said.

An information gap exists between older and younger people that makes it more challenging for young people to protect themselves against HIV infection. Batambuze said education disparity is especially apparent in rural parts of the country, where young girls are unaware of the necessary precautions for HIV and pregnancy prevention.

“From my interactions, you get a lot of what you could refer to as funny answers or funny questions from these people,” Batambuze said. “But at the end of the day you realize that there is a lot of ignorance when it comes to such information.”

Along with a lack of education comes a need for financial security. Young people in Uganda are known to be involved in relationships with older partners, exchanging sexual favors for gifts or money.

Young women and girls are particularly at risk for infection from cross-generational sex. Annah Kukundakwe, programs manager of Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum (UYAHF), an NGO that implements livelihood projects to empower and educate young people, said that young women get pulled into unsafe situations at a young age due to hardships at home.

“We have heard of, she has started having sex at the age of 16, you know, because she is taking care of her [HIV] positive mother, her siblings, and she’s sleeping with older men just to take care of her family,” Kukundakwe said. “It’s something that we’ve seen every day. Even in schools, those who are in school tell you they’re having a boyfriend who is a sugar daddy because they are looking for money.”

Cross-generational relationships such as these put young people in a compromising situation where they are unable to negotiate for condom use and safe sex.

To combat the pressure to engage in transactional relationships with older partners, UYAHF equips young people with marketable skills such as sewing that they can use to gain their own employment and become financially independent. But Kukundakwe said it is difficult for young women to give up the ease of a sugar daddy relationship.

“And they’ve expressly told us, ‘Hey you people, a sewing machine is not going to solve my problem. You need to ask; it’s not what I want. Ask me, you’ve not consulted me on what would really take me off the street, you know?’” Kukundakwe said. “Because others will tell you the street is easy money.”

UYAHF has had success with its livelihood projects in the form of Jane Nannono, 20, who has been involved in a cross-generational relationship since she was 18. Impoverished throughout childhood, Nannono sought to date an older man because of his wealth. While her relationship is now based on love, she said that participating in UYAHF’s handbag-making livelihood project has helped her discover her own potential.

“It has really helped me in making my own bags, my own talent,” Nannono said.

Nannono said that she enjoys sitting outside to make her bags, and she is able to finish one in only three days. When the bags are finished, they are distributed to vendors and Nannono is compensated for her work.

“I’m excited in my job because it gives me a lot of money,” Nannono said.

Gorreti Nagawa, programs director of UYAHF, spoke to the ability of livelihood projects to encourage independence among young people and steer them away from reliance on unsafe methods of gaining financial security.

“We believe if we involve these young girls and boys into livelihood projects where they can get money, we can cap this problem of cross-generational sex because poverty, poverty is the problem here that’s actually driving these girls into that,” Nagawa said.

Jane Nannono, 20, said she enjoys sitting down in this part of town to make handbags as a part of UYAHF’s livelihood project.

One of the largest hurdles in reaching young people is surmounting their adolescent defiance. Batambuze said with the proper approach, young people could be educated on the advantages and disadvantages of a situation and learn to make their own informed decisions concerning their lifestyle choices.

“From our experiences dealing with young people, the moment you tell a young person, ‘Don’t do this,’ they are going to do the direct opposite of what you say,” Batambuze said. “So at the end of the day you are trying to give this young person options to choose, but at the back of the mind is that option not to engage in such a harmful practice because you try to convince them that some of the things that they are doing have a very big adverse impact on what their life should be.”