Bringing change one girl at a time: young mentors from the Wise Choices for Life programme co-founded by mission partner Heather Sharland have helped raise the age of first pregnancy from 14 to 16 (All photos: David and Heather Sharland)
“I can’t be pregnant. I can’t be pregnant. I’ve taken precautions.” These were the words of a seven-month pregnant young girl who thought a sticking plaster on her belly button would stop her from conceiving.
At the time these words were spoken at a local clinic, the average age of first pregnancy in Arua, north west Uganda, was 14. A lack of sex education is a big part of the problem; girls don’t know how their bodies work, and sometimes rumours about sticking plaster contraceptives are the most reliable information they have. In these rural communities in Uganda, teenage pregnancies happen all too easily.
The issue is a complex one. Quite apart from a lack of sex education, girls have very low self-esteem and are desperate to earn some money. Poverty is widespread, and young girls struggle to afford food and their school fees. In the evening when young girls go out to collect water, boys are waiting at the water pumps. They know girls are easily won over with a few kind words. Older men are also waiting for these girls. Having left their families behind to get work in this part of the country, they are out looking for young virgins. They know girls will sleep with them for as little as 10,000 Ugandan shillings (about two pounds).
When a girl gets pregnant at 14 or 15 years old, she drops out of school. Pregnancy shuts down future opportunities that an education would have made possible, and every teen pregnancy contributes to passing on the poverty cycle to the next generation. Many girls in this part of Uganda see teenage pregnancy as inevitable. Why would their life take a different path from that of their mothers and older sisters?
Changing the script
Breaking this long-standing poverty cycle isn’t easy; these girls’ mothers usually haven’t been to school, and the cultural expectation is that a girl learns how to do the household chores and is married off when she is old enough to produce children.
Her impoverished family are likely keen to marry her off, as they will receive a bride price for her. Having raised a certain number of cows to buy a girl, a husband’s attitude is often, “I’ve paid for you. Therefore you need to produce children, you do the work that I want you to do.” She is not loved as a person, but seen as an object that has been bought. When she reaches menopause, her value as a wife is diminished, and her husband may buy another 14 or 15-year-old girl to satisfy his desires while his first wife sleeps in the kitchen.
Beginning to dream
CMS mission partner Heather Sharland, a midwife by profession, has a heart to show these young girls the love of Jesus, and show them what love really is. She has a passion for giving these girls a chance at a different future.
Heather started a youth programme called Wise Choices for Life, which gives girls in these communities options through a mixture of education, peer encouragement and mentoring.
Heather engages godly, educated girls in their 20s who can come alongside younger girls to set an example and show them what’s possible. The poverty cycle can’t be broken overnight, but change can happen one girl at a time.
When they start the programme, some of the girls have such low self-esteem they don’t think they’re important to Jesus. Heather teaches the girls that each one of them is a beloved daughter of God and that he has good things in store for them. She shares God’s heart for them; that he doesn’t want them to be pregnant at 14.
In one of Heather’s teaching sessions, she pressed a doll against a young girl’s stomach. “It doesn’t fit!” the girl said, struck by the stark reality of teen pregnancy. She was so impacted by the illustration that she started to cry, saying she didn’t want a baby yet. Heather linked her up with a mentor, who walked alongside her and encouraged her in her education. Now this same girl is in her third year of secondary school, with a bright future ahead of her.
As well as addressing hopelessness, sex education and low self-esteem, Heather talks to the girls about goals. They talk about how to set them and what kind of goals they might already have, or like to have. Many of them weren’t even sure why they went to school at all. One of the girls on Heather’s programme said she’d like to be a nurse. As a group they discussed what might prevent her reaching the goal and what seemed to get in the way of goals. The girls told Heather, “Girls in our community don’t go to further education.”
The Wise Choices programme is a space to learn about the opportunities education can open up: becoming a nurse or a doctor or a teacher, and earning your own money. At the idea of earning their own money, the girls’ eyes light up, inspired by the idea of taking a different path, reaching their goals and being independent. They talk about the things that might stop them reaching their goals, such as distraction by boys and getting pregnant, and how to hold each other accountable and focus on their goals instead.
“Throw this wife away”
Heather and her husband David have never had any children. In this culture, a woman’s value is so tightly bound up with producing children that people say to David, “Why don’t you get another wife? Throw this one away. She’s not produced any children.” In this context, it’s hard for a girl to have a real sense of her worth apart from her ability to produce children or gratify a man. “It’s very hard for some of our young girls to understand the father heart of God because they’ve not seen a father’s love, they’ve not experienced love from a mother or father, because basically they’re an object to do things rather than to be loved.”
David and Heather see part of their role in this community as modelling what marriage really means, and to validate the reality of being a woman who’s not had children and yet is loved.
A brighter tomorrow
Gradually, the number of young girls avoiding pregnancy and going on to secondary school is increasing. Since Heather and Cindy Okollo started this youth programme in 2015, the average age of first pregnancy in the area has increased from 14 to 16. By helping girls to make wise choices, the culture is being changed from the inside out, one girl at a time. It’s a long-term solution that has the potential to change the future for generations to come.
Now these girls have a beautiful self-confidence and can say, “I am valued.” Now there is hope for the future. Many young girls are setting their sights on education, meaning they won’t be dependent on a man for their basic needs. As for the next generation, there’s no telling how far they’ll go.
Pray for these young women and their families. Please pray also for the region where Heather and David work, facing locusts and the danger of coronavirus on top of the challenges that already existed.