To Accelerate Economic Growth, Uganda Should Prioritize Young People’s Health Care
New Security Beat
By Winfred Ongom, White Ribbon Alliance Uganda
Even though it has always been said that young people are the future of society, it is important to note that we are very much present. We are ready to thrive and become productive adults. Unfortunately, many adolescents and young people are robbed of their potential. We still face a high risk of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, early child bearing, unsafe abortions, and dropping out of school.
As a nutritionist intern with Lira Regional Referral Hospital four years ago, I saw how many young people are slipping through the cracks of health care in Uganda. Teenage moms were admitted straight to the floor because there were no beds. Some could not even afford cups and plates. Teen moms were not always comfortable with midwives as old as their mothers giving them services and they had to face health workers who were not youth friendly. Seeing these problems started me on my journey in advocacy for reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health.
As a citizen journalist with White Ribbon Alliance Uganda, I helped organize citizens’ hearings that brought together communities and duty bearers to improve their relationships and most importantly to bring all problems to the table and come up with solutions. Before the community learned about their rights, they were timid and afraid to be on the same platform with their leaders. But after multiple meetings, both the community and duty bearers learned they were partners in improving the health of their community. This is where the accountability process started, both the community and duty bearers better understood their roles and responsibilities. Some districts even made big gains by recruiting more doctors.
Currently, Uganda has one of the youngest and most rapidly growing populations in the world, with the population under age 25 constituting more than half the total population. This presents a major demographic force with significant potential to influence not only future health trends but also our country’s socioeconomic development. With scaled up evidence-based programs, reaching more youth with timely information, services, and life skills, young people will be able to reach their fullest potential, and Uganda therefore will get to enjoy its demographic dividend, or the accelerated economic growth that may result from a decline in a country’s birth and death rates and the subsequence change in the population’s age structure. Young people who are healthy and happy are better equipped to contribute to their communities as young citizens and become productive adults.
Unfortunately, among health issues young people face, teenage pregnancy continues to increase in Uganda with 1 in 4 girls who are 15 to 19 years old already a mother or pregnant. These teenage pregnancies also contribute to maternal deaths. Even though the government continuously ratifies different commitments and policies, they fail to deliver because investment and implementation is still poor. Young people want leaders to effectively serve them, recognizing and understanding their changing needs based on age, sex, and other factors. They also don’t want to just be seen as beneficiaries. Young people want to be part of the planning, implementing, and accountability process.
Young people don’t only want a vote in the budget. They want to see their health integrated as a priority in all programs. For example, a look at some of the health sector strategic priorities for Financial Year 2019/20 include: upgrading health facilities by providing adequate staffing and operational funds. But this improvement should also cater to the health needs of young people with youth-friendly quality services.
Young people’s lack of knowledge of their own rights, entitlements, and responsibilities has also affected the huge role we have in improving our health. As young people, we applaud government for its achievements in improving health and we still have lots of optimism about the health sector’s ability to foster development, as long as Uganda’s leaders invest and commit to deliver on their promises. Youth will then be empowered and be able to make choices that support the pursuit for their health, education goals, and development of life skills that lead to national development.
Winfred Ongom is a citizen journalist with White Ribbon Alliance and has been ranked by Johnson & Johnson together with The Guardian among the top 10 young people creating change in the world.
Sources: HuffPost, Population Reference Bureau, The Observer, United Nations.
Photo Credit: Young African Leaders, Global Health Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo by Meagan Doll.