When I first thought about volunteering in Africa I thought my biggest challenges would be pesky mosquitoes, long-drop toilets and rickety transport. But I was wrong.
I was 26 and had never been to Africa before. Like lots of people, I referred to it as if it were one place, one country even, not the 54 separate nations within in. I had a singular understanding of it. Africa.
I lived and volunteered in a tiny remote village in central Uganda for eight months in 2005. Home was a basic three-roomed brick house with a dirt floor shared with two other volunteers. There was no electricity, no running water, our long-drop toilets were shared by around 50 people and our “shower” was a wrap of corrugated iron surrounding a small platform of bricks warmed by the sun. Around one billion people throughout the world live in similar conditions.
On a good day, in the right position on a high window sill in the house, I would have one flickering bar of mobile phone reception. But most days my “old life” in Australia seemed very far away.
These days, eight years on, my time in Uganda is still very close to me. Mostly what I think about are the girls in my village.
During my time in the small rural community I discovered that some of the male teachers had a “thing” for young girls (usually for girls between grades five and seven). I have many stories, but the one that stays with me the most is when one of the boys in grade 6 was beaten by a teacher because they both liked the same girl. Yes. That’s right. A grown man competing with a 12 year old boy for the same girl.
Even now it’s hard to process.
Luckily the girl’s family found out and insisted that the teacher resign. Their daughter’s education, they explained to us, was not going to be interrupted by an immoral teacher.
We supported the family and the family of the boy who was beaten in meeting after meeting with the principal (who was very reluctant to do anything about the situation) and finally the teacher was dismissed. We found out a few months later that he had been given a teaching position in a nearby village. I was devastated that we had only managed to protect one girl from this teacher.
I spoke to a trusted friend in the village to see if my concerns about the numbers of young girls being targeted for sex were founded. He told me that all I needed to do was to look at the girls in primary grades 6 and 7 to see if they were ‘taken’. My mind raced through all the girls that we taught. It had never occurred to me before, but so many of them wore jewellery. Gold watches, rings, earrings.
A 2007 study published in the African Journal of Reproductive Health found that having sex for money or gifts is a common occurrence among girls in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The research found that in Uganda, up to 90% of rural girls aged 12 – 20 years old reported that they had engaged in sexual relations in exchange for money or gifts. Often, those giving the money or gifts were older, much older.
Many of the schoolgirls I knew in the village saw a relationship with a teacher or older man as prestigious. These were girls who lived in mud huts with one pair of shoes, a couple of changes of clothes, and then suddenly they were being offered new dresses, rings and necklaces. Sex didn’t seem like such a high price to them. And some of the girls were coerced. Results from the 2004 National Survey of Adolescents in Uganda found that one in 10 sexually experienced females in Uganda aged between 12–14 years reported that their first sexual intercourse was forced.
In a country where poverty is widespread and many people rely on what they grow, if an older male (or ‘sugar daddy’ as they were called) offered a young girl jewellery or money in exchange for a relationship or sex, the girl often knew the dangers (in terms of HIV infection) but had very few other options. She could support her family. A study from 2002 on cross-generational and transactional sex found that within sub-Saharan Africa relationships where gifts or money are exchanged for sex, girls lacked the power to negotiate condom use or to control the use of violence.
We organised HIV testing for the village. In one afternoon in the village, 103 people were tested and 6 were found to be positive. In some way this was expected, as the national rate of infection in Uganda is around 6%. Because of privacy we didn’t know who was positive, but the testers told us a couple of people who tested positive for HIV were “very young.” These children may have contracted the virus from non-sexual means but I knew from my time in the village that there was a good chance they had become infected from sex with an adult.
There are no easy answers and it is unlikely that any will come quickly despite myriad efforts. For children living in countries in sub-Saharan Africa who have insufficient food for their daily needs, poverty and disease are inextricably linked and are major causes of illness and death. Food insecurity has been linked with risky sexual behaviours and transactional sex was the norm for many of the young girls I knew.
Of course, this is just a single story but unfortunately, it’s one that many young girls in Uganda could tell. As parents we often like to imagine that the world our children grow up in will be safe and nurturing. A place where little girls wearing jewellery brings to mind playing dress-ups rather than anything more sinister. I’m sure parents in Uganda wish for that too.
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Lindy Alexander is a freelance writer and social worker. She is currently completing her PhD and writing a book about her time in Uganda. You can follow Lindy on twitter: @alexander_lindy