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Updated: Jan 4, 2023

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.

Contribute to this conversation.

Here is the link to the short film-“The Sarahs”.

If you want to provide any kind of support the “Sarah” in this text and or many others like her that we work with, kindly reach out to us on this number +256779791326 or email us at

Compiled by

Sylvia Nalubega

Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights


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Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights brings Victoria’s narrative of her life as a teenage mother and student. Victoria is one of the participants in the “Taking back my Pen campaign. In partnership with Urgent Action Fund- Africa, SARI is implementing the “Taking back my Pen” campaign to advance the right to go back to school for girls who have been forced to drop out of school. The campaign is working towards improved strategies that advance girls’ rights at the national and local government level, increased public support to promote girls’ right to go back to school, and a movement of girls/youth groups, associations and networks that regularly convene and amplify the human rights of girls.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, my life took a drastic turn. The school lockdown affected me the most. The first weeks after the lockdowns were good. My parents had some savings so there was enough food. However, my family started struggling because my parents had less income. There was less food at home, father and mother were constantly fighting, and there was so much tension at home. It was not the happy place we knew from childhood.

As a teenager, I felt lost. The future before seemed fuzzy and I needed someone to be there for me. I envied a neighbor who seemed to have it all together. On one hungry day, he saw and gave me some delicious food and soda. That felt like heaven to me. He told me that starving a beautiful girl like me was sacrilege. He promised that he would take care of me so I need not be afraid. All I had to do was to help him with some house chores and I would get all the food I wanted. My young heart skipped with excitement at the thought of having good meals. A few weeks down the road, this man lured me into the sexual act. He promised that I would not become pregnant. I didn’t know any better about using contraceptives. We did it twice and my conscience troubled me. I remembered my Christian upbringing and I knew that I had sinned against God and my parents. I decided to leave the comforts of good food and keep to the cassava and water served at home.

As consequence would have it, I discovered that I was pregnant after three months and a half. The doctor at the nearby clinic diagnosed me when I went for treatment because I had started falling sick quite often. My mother told me to abort because she could not stand the shame. My father was very angry and the rest of the family hated me. They told me that if I didn’t do as they said, I would stop going to school. I didn’t go for the abortion. When I gave birth to my baby girl, the man responsible for my pregnancy disappeared from the village. We had no way of tracing his whereabouts to date. I was always in tears at home seeing that all my dreams had s gone down the drain.

Then one day in March 2022, a youth leader in our community reached out to me to participate in training sessions that were being held by an organization that I came later to know as Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights- SARI. SARI was working with a youth group using performing arts to train them in their rights, reproductive health issues, life skills and other very interesting things. Many of the participants were young girls, some with babies, and other young males. We also participated in meetings with our local leaders and parents where we discussed issues of teenage pregnancies, school dropouts, and gender-based violence. We also made performances through drama and dance on the same issues. My father was among the people that came to the community meetings. After the discussions, we had a talk at home and he decided to take me back to school. I was elated. Though I had fears about how fellow students and teachers would treat me, I was determined to use the second chance given to me that not so many girls in my state had.

As a youth group, we continue to meet to share experiences while learning different things and doing performing arts. Having such groups in the community is very important. I am now in my senior four and preparing to sit for my Uganda Certificate Education level. My family is supportive; they take care of the baby when I am at school. I call upon parents, local leaders and organizations to keep supporting girls to get back to school and provide counselling, especially for those who got unwanted pregnancies. In this way, we will secure our rights and our future.

Compiled by Sylvia Nalubega

Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights.

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Seventeen year old Ninsiima carries her two month baby on the back as she goes to the stone quarry in Mende village to make a living. Together with her eighteen year old cousin Catherine who is a mother of eleven month’s baby, the two young mothers set off to work. They may never get an opportunity to go back to school because they not only fear the stigma, bullying and unkind words they may face at school and community but now they also have to take care of their children. When asked about their dreams are, they hesitate to respond because it seems so farfetched.

Ninsiima and Catherine together with their caretaker working in a stone quarry in Mende.

Currently, teenage pregnancy (pregnancy in girls below the age of 19 years) remains a great challenge in Uganda especially for school retention. Pregnancy is one of the main causes of girls dropping out of school. This is not helped by the fact that many teenagers have limited or no knowledge about family planning until they became pregnant. Moreover like Reverend Peter says, many there is also a general realisation that teenage pregnancy is largely accidental as girls are often victims of rape, defilement and other coercive acts to lure them into early sex.

Whereas in recent years, Uganda has taken bolder steps to protect the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers, Covid19 exacerbated the challenge due to prolonged school closures, lack of protective communities, inaccessibility to sexual and reproductive health services, and lack of remote learning opportunities during the pandemic.

A recent report by UNFPA warned that if no action is taken to ensure these girls stay in school, 60% of teenage mothers will end up in peasant agriculture and annually more than Shs645 billion will be spent by Government on healthcare for teen mothers and education of their children.

In some studies on re-entry of adolescent girls to school, majority of teachers and students are against retention of pregnant girls in school but support the option of reentry of girls into school after giving birth. It is true that showed that adolescent mothers encounter “ridicule and discriminatory language” from both teachers and other students when they return to school. Further, the way schools manage teenage pregnancy varies from school to school with little (if any) oversight. Most schools expel pregnant girls; however this is on moralistic ground and not backed by any government policy, guideline or directive.

According to the ministry of education and sports (MOES), the Ridicule or scorn or discrimination of pregnant girls is considered a form of psychological and emotional violence. Thus, like other forms of Violence against children in schools shall be tracked and resolved using the RTRR (Reporting, Tracking, Referral and Response) guidelines. The School under the leadership of the head teacher is called upon take measures to build its capacity to report and track violence against pregnant girls by fellow learners, teachers and other school staff.

Nonetheless, many affected adolescents are willing to continue with schooling till they complete the school cycle or even attain their excepted academic qualifications. Bearing on the principle of the right to education, the schools have to support these adolescents optimally till they complete the school cycles.

The MOES guidelines “When a girl is discovered to be pregnant, she shall be counseled, and the guidelines for retention or continuation at school and re-entry after pregnancy shall be discussed. The head teacher and other teachers shall work with parents to ensure that there is family support/social support for the pregnant girl.”

School reentry also finds many caretakers with mixed feelings. Whereas some like Jackie’s mother would love to take her daughter back to school, others would rather they get married off to the men who impregnated them.

Like IIhan Ozturk says, education is a powerful driver for development. No society can achieve social-economic growth without investing in the education of its people. It improves the quality of their lives and leads to broad social benefits to individuals and society.

The Taking back my Pen! campaign supported by Urgent Action Fund-Africa is empowering girls with knowledge of their right to education while engaging duty bearers and service providers that girls in our community have equal opportunity to go back to school. SARI is empowering a girls-led grassroots movement to enable girls participate in advocating for fair opportunities in education, youth livelihood initiatives and prevention to gender based violence. SARI also has also engaged relevant stakeholders including community development services offices, village and political leaders, caregivers to enable girls thrive in the community. Through these efforts, we have seen three girls being take back to school and ‘taking back their pen!

SARI team member conducting a rights awareness session among teenage mothers in Sebbi village

Sanyu Centre for Arts and Rights


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