On Saturday, the world came together to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March. For an entire day, global headlines, events and speeches shone a spotlight on women’s social, economic, and political contributions and achievements. While I joined these celebrations, I couldn’t help but ask: why can’t we prioritise girls and women every day?
The truth is that investments in girls and women are some of the best investments a country can make. If all women who wanted to use contraception were able to, it would prevent 1.1 million infant deaths, reduce the rate of HIV infection, and save Shs36.9 trillion, now lost due to adolescent pregnancy.
Uganda has the second highest fertility rate in the world, after Niger, at 6.2 children per woman. When young girls become pregnant frequently, it is harder for them to stay in school and gain the skills needed to find a job. They are also at increased risk of significant health problems from early pregnancy and childbearing.
While the status of girls and women is improving in certain areas – like achieving gender parity in primary education – we are failing them in others, such as ensuring their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Uganda has an unmet need for family planning of 34 per cent, which means more than a third of Ugandan women want, but do not have access to modern methods of contraception.
As a result, we have high abortion rates in Uganda. Teen pregnancy and maternal death rates in Uganda remain much too high. In fact, one in four Ugandan teenagers is pregnant or has a child – a figure that has remained unchanged for the last several years - and over 6,000 Ugandan women died from complications due to pregnancy and childbirth last year.
Fortunately, Ugandan policy makers recognise that providing girls, women and their partners with family planning information and services can reverse these trends.
In July 2012, at the London Summit on Family Planning, President Museveni committed to increase the government’s budget for family planning, reduce the unmet need for contraception from 40 per cent to 10 per cent by 2022, and achieve universal access to family planning. Spending on family planning has already been increased.
That is why on Saturday, almost several people attended a concert at the Garden City Rooftop in Kampala. For the past three years, Talent Africa has held this concert on International Women’s Day to draw attention to critical issues around girls’ and women’s health and rights.
This year, the concert also helped launch the It Takes Two campaign, led by Women Deliver and the Global Poverty Project. The campaign aims to increase public support for family planning and to encourage governments to invest in increasing access to information and services.
I first learned about the It Takes Two campaign in October, when members of the Women Deliver and Global Poverty Project teams came to Uganda to garner stakeholder approval, insight, and recommendations. At the time, the campaign had already gathered support from more than 40,000 young people across 25 countries.
This is obvious evidence that young people need access to family planning information and services. I immediately signed on to support the campaign because I, too, believe that young people should have the right and the power to determine their own futures.
The campaign will mobilise Uganda’s greatest resource – its young people – as powerful advocates for change. It will encourage youth to call on the policy makers to address key issues around family planning, including reducing the rate of teen pregnancy, providing comprehensive sexual education, and ensuring accessible youth-friendly family planning information and services.
With nearly three-quarters of Uganda’s population under the age of 30, now is the time to engage and equip young advocates to be tomorrow’s leaders.
I ask that you join me and the It Takes Two campaign to help young people realise their right to comprehensive family planning information and services. Together, we can create a future where girls and women are healthy and empowered every day.
Ms Opendi is the State Minister for Primary Health Care