It’s been a minute since the #WhatGirlsWant Movement in Uganda converged to reinvent and share experiences especially during the COVID-19 Period. In case one is curious about what happened in such a space, well, our intention was to understand the relationship between increased Violence against Women cases and COVID-19 on Young Women affected by HIV, to learn the effects of COVID-19 in relation to access to HIV and VAW services and to learn practices that Young Women reinforced to handle the situation to be in position to recommend them to the SADC Response. All this was in support by the ATHENA Network a global Network working to advance Gender equality, human rights and diversity within and beyond the Global HIV response.
The environment was a smooth ride as we dived into deep conversations that put a light to the challenges, frustrations and limitations that Adolescent Girls and Young Women in our communities were facing. To mention that covid19 is a deterrent to sexual health is an understatement as the young women richly shared knowledge and vivid examples in the course of the discussion.
Angel Ntege opened the floor with an experience that brought strong reflections and gave momentum to the dialogue: “Only 15 girls had managed to make it to Secondary School in one of the villages in Nakaseke District even before COVID-19, and 12 of those girls got pregnant during lockdown,” this depicted that the effects went beyond our bodies, health and into our carrier paths, and access to education. Angel further noted significant community challenges such as: difficulty in disseminating findings on Community score cards due to restricted movement, spousal negligence, failure to deliver accurate information etc… She also extended her concern on some facilities’ denial of viral load testing services to Young People living with HIV in justification of limiting contact with many people.
To concrete the discussion: Shakira Namwanje, the 2019 AVAC Fellow beefed up the discussion relaying that information delivery to Adolescent Girls and Young Women was difficult due to lack of resources that enabled access to internet in the hard to reach areas. She also added that the possible bleach of confidentiality by Health service providers hindered access to HIV and SRHR Services to AGYW. To conclude her submission, Shakira recommended the need to collect as much information as possible as it was key in shaping better community programs and implementation models.
Lynette, a coordinator of GIRL+ in Hoima District, South Western Uganda stressed out the drastic loss of household income during the COVID-19 Period. Informal jobs had been totally disregarded a challenge that led to increased domestic violence cases in her community. We shouldn’t forget that these work spaces also acted as safe and escape violence; “not going to work meant that we were going to be around the perpetrators of violence and in locations that promoted violence.” She added.
Access to HIV ART Treatment and Medication became a huge challenge for AGYW, stressed Babirye Robinah. She continued to extend her dismay in continued drug failure and viral load increase for the case of girls that spent time without receiving ART due to the lockdown.
The aspect of bleach of confidentiality was once again raised in the struggle to provide psycho-social support to AGYW living with HIV. Community Stigma and discrimination had increased especially due to branded cars from support entities extending door to door deliveries of essential medicines to their clients in their homes: the idea that AGYW had not disclosed to everyone in their homes but were stuck with these individuals also caused great exposure and supported bleach of confidentiality. The AGYW have since neglected the need to stay adherent to medicines to protect their privacy.
To support continuous accurate and age appropriate information sharing, Young women have equipped themselves with tools that support their own education like the sexuality education framework and so many other tools that have since supported their ethical engagements with other girls in the communities. Young Women are contributing to stronger main stream media interventions which support localization of COVID-19 messages.
Sharifah Nalugo, a Peer Supporter from Joint Clinic Research Center under Paediatrics and Adolescent Health Treatment Africa PATA outed the responsibility she braced herself with which led to follow-ups on missed appointments of AGYW on ART Treatment.
Adapting to new innovations like Podcasts in extending psycho-social support to Young Women was also one intervention that was proven effective in the COVID-19 Period and beyond.
As we concluded this key conversation, it was noted that COVID-19 had so much threatened the Mental Health of Young People living with HIV. This had both caused a shift in behavioral change, but had also tested the ability to create and innovate new interventions to address such issues and offer psycho-social support to Young People. The challenge remained how such interventions would be sustainable post COVID-19.