The Power Lens
Sarah, quietly takes notes while flipping the pages of her books. As she closes her eyes to recall what she has just read, her baby’s whimpers interrupt her. She puts her books aside to soothe the little one. Her mind drifts to the days when she worked hard at her in school. She recalls twenty months ago when she first found out that she was going to be a mother.
In 2020 being out of school, seventeen-year-old Sarah seeks to find a job that would give her an income. She leaves her rural home for her Aunt’s place, in town, to spend the holidays there while she waits for the school to open. The Aunt has actually paid for her to learn hairdressing at a nearby saloon while helping out with house chores. Her aunt happens to have a friend, a well-off adult man, and she encourages Sarah to reach out to him a job. The auntie convinces her that with h money in her pockets, she can then take care of herself. While Sarah is waiting for the job, the man offers her money and gifts from time to time. The support extends to the aunt too who continues to persuade Sarah to get closer to the man by the day. Before long, and with limited exposure, she finds out that she is three months pregnant. When she takes the mandatory HIV test for expectant mothers, she discovers that she is HIV positive.
Upon confronting the man, he utterly denies, and calls her all sorts of denigrating names and threatens to beat her. He accuses her of sleeping around with other men and of infecting him. Powerless and unable to find ways of using her voice to defend herself; her auntie sends her back to her rural home. Home has dynamics of its own as Sarah lives in an extended family where everyone is only concerned about themselves. Feeling lost and lonely she keeps her situation to herself until two months later when they find out that she is pregnant/. They tell her to go back to the man who impregnated her. Because she has more or less no support, she misses being put on Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission (EMtCT) during her pregnancy, hence her baby is born with HIV positive. Sarah is also not enrolled on Anti-Retroviral Treatment. To make a living, Sarah looks for work as a nanny. The employer a single father of two also wants to exploit her sexually. She is forced to leave her work and go back home. At times, she gets food and other times not. To date, none of her family members knows about her sero status and that of her child. School is a far away dream yet Sarah still hopes that one day she will have the chance to enhance her literacy skills.
The story of young women such as Sarah will change if we, as a society and as activists will understand and challenge the structural drivers of inequality and violence against women at the centre of which is patriarchal power, class, age, urban/rural. Naming how power operates both to oppress and to liberate, bolsters activists’ confidence in the possibility of change and better equips them to address the complexities of change. Having a common framework for understanding all the dimensions of power, including the ways that we perpetuate and reproduce inequality in our own lives, enables women to work together more effectively on common strategies.
The Sarahs is a reality for many girls. Caught in the intersectional lines of power, class, age, gender and limited access to information, many girls are forced to make tough choices and live with negative consequences such as dropping out of school, early unwanted pregnancies, stigma, HIV/STI infections, violence and poverty. A critical look at this situation shows power at play as the two people- the aunt and the man lure the young Sarah into a relationship. In her conversation, Sarah highlights that many girls are pushed into relationships for the benefit of their relatives who hold power over them. They are compelled to be in those relationships because they feel they have no power to say no. Otherwise, how will they survive? The limited access to information on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and Services further disempowers the girls to make the right choices for their lives. Those who have resources have power. The adult man has the power of money and gifts to influence both Sarah and her aunt to give in to him.
Closely behind the power is the age where many young teenage girls are at the mercy of exploitative adults and are forced to cater to their needs. Age intersects and worsens other forms of disadvantage including those related to gender and disability. Furthermore, the young Sarah had no information on how to get support from the family protection unit for the man to take responsibility. Then again, a supportive family structure is critical to ensuring justice for Sarah who is a defilement case since she is only seventeen.
Similarly, the class and social divide come in as girls found in impoverished families are mostly subjected to this form of discrimination. While addressing girls’ rights and working for social change, we activists need to understand power in terms of power structures and power relations.
When it comes to education, we see who sets the agenda. Though Sarah and many like her in her position would like to go back to school, we see power at play as she can’t make this decision on her own. The Ugandan education system allows young mothers to return to school, but many lack a support system at home or means to provide for their babies. Sarah is not able to put her desires on the family agenda because she has no agenda-setting power. Yet there is a need for girls to have this power within to challenge such injustices. We also have to consider the context beyond the positive language of getting teenage mothers back to school. They are real issues facing girls in different communities. The abuse, the teenage pregnancy, the erosion of confidence, the fear, the lack of resources to get back to school, the relegation to a house help as a young girl and most heart-wrenching, the stigmatization in the communities.
Education is a tool of empowerment and transformation for many girls. During the lockdown, many girls got pregnant and have been forced to drop out of school. Limited support has been given to them to return to school. Uganda's National Planning Authority estimated in August that 30% of all the country's learners would not be going back to school due to teenage pregnancies, early marriages, and child labour. The government's health data show that cases of pregnancy among girls aged 10-14 more than quadrupled between March when the schools were first closed, and September 2020.
My Write is My Right! is an advocacy campaign that Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights is implementing in partnership with the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) to advance the right to education for teenage mothers while addressing challenges embedded in systemic structures right from family to national levels. When asked about her dream, Sarah wants to continue with her education believing that an educated girl is at a greater advantage to make better choices for her life. Girls and young women with education, professional or technical skills can become influential in society even though they don’t come from economically powerful backgrounds. A young girl who has attained some level of education has more social power than one who has not. It is important therefore to empower girls to reflect upon their position in society and consider themselves as holders of knowledge to move in the right direction. Connecting with this inner power is a propeller to changing processes that can dismantle and transform prevailing inflexible power structures. SARI uses creative arts to empower and transform girls and young women to enhance this power within. We also acknowledge that it is our collective responsibility to provide love and hope as well as a safe space for these young mothers to go through difficult processes and seek second chances. We are convinced that reducing the high rate of teenage pregnancy and also retaining teenage mothers in school is critical towards meeting SDG 3, to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”.
What factors can bring the power balance closer to the Sarahs for them to be an environment that fosters their well-being? We explore this in “The Sarahs” part two.
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Here is the link to the short film-“The Sarahs”.
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Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights