P.E.A.R.L.S in the Pearl of Africa
Situated in central Uganda, Rakai district has been at the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic due largely to its location as a hub on the transnational highway connecting Uganda to the neighboring countries.
The district prevalence rate is estimated at 10% which is higher than the national average. Rakai district has been in critical need of HIV/AIDS interventions. It is against this background that when I arrived in my little village two years ago, the urgency of having to do something dawned upon me.
After some research, I came to the conclusion that starting a Girls Club would provide a great opportunity for disseminating the correct message about HIV to the population most at risk - adolescent girls. St. Agnes Vocational School is one of the few schools that enrolls girls aged between 15 and 21. We started with sixteen (16) girls who joined the Uganda PEARLS girls’ club in January 2016. 'PEARLS' is acronym for Powerful, Enthusiastic, Aware, Refined, Ladies. These girls were selected by the headmaster of the school based on the attributes defined in each of the letters in the acronym.
The club began by promoting talks on various subjects that included malaria prevention, sexual and reproductive health, dream building and goal setting, public speaking, friendships, and of course HIV. These were conducted in a free and friendly environment at school. One day after school, we took a field trip to the health center where I work to introduce the girls to the staff who perform HIV tests in the laboratory. The girls then agreed to get tested to learn their status and were counseled by the nurses accordingly.
We then planned and brought the knowledge we had gained as a club to the community at a local Trading center. The girls presented lessons on the various aspects of HIV/AIDS and encouraged community members to come to the health center for free HIV testing.
From the inception of club, we all took time to get to know one another. It was important to create a safe space where the girls would feel welcome to ask sometimes awkward health questions and to share an important part of their lives. For a few weeks, we focused on making reusable menstrual pads (RUMPS) and on learning how menstruation can be a barrier to a girl’s education. Each girl in the club would perform a proper condom demonstration (without giggling) and clearly explain the ways HIV/AIDS can be transmitted. Later, the girls learned how to make the pads as an income generating activity to help pay for school fees or even to pursue such bigger dreams like owning a car or house. Admittedly, Club meetings weren’t always so serious with health topics and so we had to incorporate fun days such as friendship bracelet making or dance contests to make it interesting. There were even times when we learnt about American customs and holidays like carving pumpkins and handing out candy for Halloween or sharing our favorite Christmas memories.
Namubiru Reticia, a veteran member of the PEARLS, states, “The club teaches us different things like being patient, having friends, and how to keep ourselves safe from diseases like HIV and other problems.”
Now that my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer is coming to an end, I wanted to be sure that the club continues with another leader. Peace Corps Uganda hosted a DREAMS workshop on how to keep adolescent girls HIV-free and aware of the health risks that are around them. I attended the workshop with a respected teacher from St. Agnes, Madame Mirembe Esther. During the training, she received the skills and knowledge needed to run a successful girls’ club and has since come back with a passion to lead the students she teaches. After co-facilitating lessons with me, Madame Esther now teaches the girls on her own, always incorporating health lessons with fun. She encourages the girls to receive regular HIV testing at the health center and is available to advice and to counsel the girls. I am confident in her ability to lead.
I leave Peace Corps service with fond memories and great hopes for a bright future for Ugandan girls who are the PEARLS of Uganda – a country that is rightfully called the Pearl of Africa.