“There was a time I needed to learn how the female condom works because when you first see it, it is weird. It is large, shapeless and you wonder how exactly it functions and because the matter was private to me, I went to YouTube for videos. Most videos had sound and because I have a hearing disability, I couldn’t follow the information. I could only guess from gestures but because there were word involved and no captions, I missed out on some information.” Marietta a young woman with a hearing impairment shares about a time that she wanted to learn how to use the female condom during the webinar.
In Uganda and within the East African region, conversations around youth’s access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights have dominated discourse in public spaces over the past few years. Within these conversations, two schools of thought emerge. The first is that, given the many problems that the region has around SRHR namely, high rates of HIV prevalence, high levels of teenage pregnancies, high rates of sexual and gender based violence, youth should have access to comprehensive, up-to-date information on SRHR. The other school of thought, more conservative in its thought believes that these topics must remain secretive. Regardless of these schools of thought the youth continue to find their way around access to SRHR information through trusted persons in their lives and through online platforms. Data on smartphone use in Uganda according to a report by NITA reflects that 15.8 percent of the population in Uganda own a smartphone, and the young (15-24 years) are at the forefront of smartphone usage at 28 per cent. More females (18.1%) own smartphones compared to males (13.4%), while younger individuals own a higher proportion of smartphones compared to older individuals. This provides an insight into an effective platform.
On 8th of May 2023, the Uganda Make Way Youth Panel hosted a webinar to hold space for the youth to explore digital technologies as a portal for SRHR education/information to young people outside the formal health and education domains. Bringing together, young women, LGBTQIA youth, and youth living with disabilities, the webinar intended to expound on how young people, especially those with compounded vulnerabilities, can realize their SRHR using digital technologies.
The conversation brought forth the different challenges that youth experience while navigating digital space.
Eroku Samuel, a tech innovator, disability activist and team lead at Signs TV Uganda said that while digital platforms provide an avenue for inclusive access, by design they are not inclusive for people with disabilities. Many platforms don’t cater to people with audio impairments through the use of sign language or captions. Others don’t cater to people with sight impairments. Eroku shared about the work they do at Signs TV, the first Television in Uganda offers programming by deaf broadcasters that is also interpreted in sign to serve Africa’s growing, yet underserved, hearing-impaired persons.
Another queer activist, Nora, from Freedom and Roam Ugandan an Lesbian Bisexual and Queer organization providing SRHR services to queer persons spoke about the difficulty of finding information that is context or region specific due to the criminalisation of LBGTQ Identities and the stigma that seeps into even the health system. She shares that there are lots of myths around the lesbian women, for example that they cannot contract HIV or STDs and as a young person, in areas where expert information around queer identities is censored, it is hard to know what is myth or fact which puts young people at risk because of lack of information.
The high cost of internet in Uganda was also mentioned as one of the barriers to effective use of digital platforms especially for youth who may not have the money to pay for the highly priced data bundles. The prevalence of violence and and sexual and gender based violence on digital platforms, the risks of violation of privacy especially for young women and queer persons make digital platforms to be an unsafe place.
These challenges around digital platforms are not surprising because, the virtual space is an extension of our physical world. The systems of oppression and inequalities that we grapple with on a daily basis like capitalism; whose interest in profit marginalizes those without resources a violent hetero-patriarchy; that polices the bodies of people and punishes those that dare to live outside of heteronormative structures, classism and ableism that is blind and discriminatory to the needs of those who have disabilities filter into the digital spaces that are built.
Isabella Akiteng, a feminist activist and Executive Director of Femme Forte shared that an inclusive digital space that enables access to SRHR information for everyone in their diversity would require us to adopt a rigorous intersectional approach within our politics set on dismantling oppressive systems that limit access to services. Akiteng urged us not to look at the challenges in the digital space as isolated incidences and one offs but as part of a broader struggle to bring marginalised people to the center.
As a path forward, there was emphasis on holding duty bearers accountable to enable inclusiveness through the creation of inclusive policies and the elimination of discriminatory ones especially around SRHR. Inclusive policies would result into more visibility for youth of different identities which would ultimately lead to everyone to be accounted for in SRHR budgeting, information and service delivery.
While the conservative school of thought around SRHR believes that information and services around SRHR should be limited for youth, the truth is that the youth are already actively seeking this information and these services. In countries like Uganda where the youth form 70 percent of the population and the future citizenry, recognizing that the SRHR needs of the youth are distinct from those of other demographics, and diversifying the accessibility of SRHR needs using a youth-friendly platform, including digital technologies would go a long way in improving our health outcomes.
Rather than hinder access to information, as communities and countries, our job is to ensure that whatever portal the youth choose to gather information from, they find information that is comprehensive and up-to-date information on SRHR for youth in all their diversities.