For the most part, sexual education around the world is pathetic. It rarely equips young people with the knowledge they need to confront the complexity of sexuality in their teenage and adult lives.
In some areas of the world, sex ed is undergoing a revolution. Some programs recognize the individuality of each person and candidly teach them the basics and complexities of sex and how it fits into her or his broader life.
By situating sex in a larger framework, rather than relegating sex ed to a dim classroom with anatomy diagrams projected onto a chalkboard for 30 minutes every 2 years, pioneers are making breakthroughs empowering youth.
Reach a Hand, Uganda is one program changing the nature of sex ed to be collaborative, enjoyable and, ultimately, empowering.
RAHU hosts summer programs, seminars, in-school classes and various events. It trains young people to be advocates and spread knowledge and it enlists celebrities and politicians for clout and engagement. It has rapidly grown to cover much of the country and has ambitions to "reach a hand" to other countries.
The founder of RAHU, Humphrey Nabimanya, recently responded to a few questions of mine over email. He addressed the origins of RAHU, overcoming community resistance, what he hopes for the future and how youth of all ages are confounded by sex when information is witheld.
Why is it important for an organization like Reach a Hand to exist in Uganda?
Reach A Hand, Uganda (RAHU) is an organisation for young people to reach out to fellow young people about Sexual Reproductive Health issues and HIV/AIDS. Uganda’s population is predominantly young with 58% of the total population below the age of 18 years, while young adults (18-24 years) account for 11% (UDHS 2011).
We empower young people to critically think through their life decisions especially regarding Sexual Reproductive Health, to ensure that they live a fulfilling life and are instrumental in the economy. Many parents in Uganda have chosen to take their children to boarding schools and out of the twelve months in the year, eight are spent in school. Working with young people, we have had so many ask us whether the first sexual encounter can lead to conception, whether sex while standing can result in a pregnancy or whether if they take a bath immediately they will not catch infections, whether they can conceive if they have sex in a swimming pool, or if they jump a bit after sex. These are the adolescents who potentially end up on the statistics of teenage pregnancy, HIV prevalence, child marriage, maternal mortality, you name it.
We have failed so many young people by clinging to cultural norms that hinder access to Sexual and Reproductive health information. We have failed them by giving them the impression that sex education is a taboo. We have failed them by adapting a one size fits all sex education strategy. And many have fallen through the cracks. Reach a Hand Uganda strives to ensure that young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential, contribute to society and have a voice in the policy decisions and programs that affect them. We have a youth-to-youth approach, which has proven to be very effective as young people are inclined to listen to fellow young people, hence our tagline “Young People for Young People.”
Our Vision is "For young people to make informed choices in life” this is driven by a mission “To empower young people in Uganda with complete information, skills and tools which enable them live healthy, focused and productive lives while reaching out to fellow young people.”
We have reached over a million young people directly through our programs and there’s a ripple effect as we encourage them to share the information in their circles too.
Has it been hard to “change social norms” around sexual health and other issues?
It has been a process. We have had friction with religious leaders who think we expose the young people to this knowledge prematurely and we encourage evil. We have gone ahead and invited some of them to our outreaches and hearing the young people sharing experiences and listening to how we address them, they always leave with a new perspective. We don’t expect many of them to actively endorse and partner with us but we trust that they will not get in our way.
Not every partnership we have with a school started well. Some doors were slammed and we humbly left, but because our advocacy resounds, they still stumbled upon us in news, social media and communities and after following our work for a while, they decided to open their doors for us.
Some people worry that we expose their children way too early, but we don’t. The messaging grows with age. We talk about everything from hygiene, to body changes, relationships, alcohol and substance abuse, peer influence, myths and misconceptions, teenage pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Nonetheless, we have never really felt gagged. Our social media advocacy is really vibrant and we have run campaigns that have attracted attention of policy makers, young people, advocates, reproductive health experts and mainstream media.
How has your background informed your work?
I was raised by HIV positive guardians- my sister and her husband who openly live positively. We were stigmatised as a family, and because my sister was much older than me, people in our neighbourhood thought I was her son, also that I was sick too. I was affected by the status of my guardians. The stigma that came with them disclosing their status was unbearable, from my peers and their parents. I became a reproductive health advocate in my secondary school, as I sensitised my peers at 13 years about HIV/AIDS and their reproductive health. This nearly got me an expulsion from school, but it did not waver me. My personal experience and what I witnessed in society created a yearning in me to cause change.
What do you want for all of your students?
Reach a Hand Uganda strives to ensure that young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential, contribute to society and have a voice in the policy decisions and programs that affect them.
What are your long term goals for Reach a Hand?
Our dream is to expand into a sustainable reproductive health organisation, catering to the needs of young people across the country. We want to create an environment where young people can come for youth friendly health services as well as sexual and reproductive health education. We also dream of training more school health workers, counsellors and wardens on provision of youth friendly health services and mentoring young people. We have a passion for youth development programs because as youth, we are the drivers of our nation. If we don’t do it, no one will do it for us!
What would you tell other global citizens who want to make a difference in the world?
When you see need to do something, do not wait for the funding. Start anyway. You need to be determined enough to say “With or without financial resources, I can do this within my means.” We began as volunteers and we got funding along the way, so if you want to do something, start now. The resources will never find an idea that is still on the shelf.