There’s a blue tent set up in the Bwaise slum of Kampala, Uganda, where non-profit workers are offering family planning services (or, as it’s referred to in the U.S., contraception).
Residents sit in blue plastic chairs as they listen to a community health advocate from non-profit Marie Stopes International explain various birth control methods. In a neighbouring tent, a nurse conducts individual counseling so that women and men can select the best method for themselves.
Speaking with people around the tent are several peer educators, young people from around the Kampala area dedicated to teaching others about the benefits of family planning.
One of those peer educators is Mebra Nantatya, a 20-year-old woman whose story is a testament to the impact birth control can have on women in Africa.
Nantatya grew up in a rural area outside of Jinja, Uganda, where she’d have to walk barefoot to school each day. But after her family moved to the capital city of Kampala, they could no longer afford to send her to school. And so she found a boyfriend who could support her, and almost immediately ended up getting pregnant and giving birth at age 15.
“I moved on with life to get a kid at a young age,” Nantatya told INSIDER.
She said her story is quite common: Many poor girls in the area — even as young as 12 or 14, she noted — find themselves in similar situations and seek out men who can support them. As a result, they often end up giving birth at a young age.
According to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, the median age of first birth for women in Uganda is 18.9 years old. That figure reflects the age at which women between the ages of 20 and 49 reported having their first child.
The DHS report found that 18% of teens in Uganda between the ages of 15 and 19 have already had a child, while 6% are carrying their first child.
But, women in Uganda who have had at least secondary education have their first child at an average age of 20.8 years — 2.7 years later than those with no education, the survey found.
Yet, despite the high rates of young pregnancy, contraception use in Uganda is relatively low.
In the United States, more than 99% of sexually active women between the ages of 15 and 44 have used at least one form of contraception, while 62% of all women in reproductive age are currently using a birth control method, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
But in contrast, only 30% of married women and 52% of sexually active unmarried woman in Uganda are using some method of contraception, according to the survey. The most popular method among married women is injectables (used by 14%), while male condoms are used by 19% of unmarried women and injectables are used by 18%.
However, nearly all women and men in Uganda are aware of at least one method of family planning, the survey found. Yet, there are still many barriers to contraceptive use in Uganda, the Guttmacher Institute noted.
Such barriers include a lack of access to and information about family planning services, particularly in rural areas. There’s also a common, misinformed belief among many Ugandan men that contraceptives can cause infertility and cancer, and also promote promiscuity for women.
As for Nantatya, she opted to get a copper intrauterine device (IUD) after visiting a health center.
The young woman chose her IUD to avoid any potential side effects, such as the breakthrough bleeding and cramps that are sometimes associated with oral birth control pills and various injectables.
According to the DHS report, 43% of family planning users in Uganda discontinue use of a method within a year, primarily because of a fear of side effects. Birth control pills, in particular, have the highest discontinuation rate.
Nantatya said she hasn’t had any side effects from her IUD, and that the device changed her life for the better.
Suddenly, she had the power to choose when she’d like to have her next child (and that’s age 25, ten years after her first daughter, she noted), and she could go back to school.
“I need to plan for my first born. The world is not easy, so I have to work hard,” she said. “This method of family planning is good for me. I can remove it and immediately get pregnant.”
When she isn’t caring for her daughter, Nantatya studies nutrition, works in a hospital, educates others about family planning, and runs a popular dance team.
She is incredibly busy — caring for her child, helping her husband, tending to her studies, completing part-time jobs, and working with Marie Stopes, a sexual healthcare non-profit that she’s been affiliated with for three years.
Through the organisation, Nantatya is working to combat negative rumours about birth control that run rampant in Bwaise and surrounding areas, so that young women like herself can get access to family planning services.
“This area is a slum area, and many kids here are having babies,” she said.
Residents often tell her that they have heard family planning causes cancer — “[I tell them] family planning does not bring cancer,” she said. Other misinformation also pervades in the slums: Many believe birth control methods cannot be used before a woman has her first child, or that the methods cause irregular periods and aren’t worth the hassle.
“I sit down with them and am like, I have to teach these people about family planning,” the young woman added.
Nantatya has big plans for her future — and for her daughter.
When she isn’t busy helping others, Nantatya attends a vocational school, where she is studying to become a nutritionist.
“I want to help kids who are malnourished to change their ways,” she said.
On top of that, she also is the captain of a dance team, called the Ravers, who practice three days a week and perform regularly at churches. The team does a ton of different forms of African dance, including Zulu and Maganda dance.
And at home, Nantatya works hard to be a positive example for her daughter, who she hopes will one day become a doctor. The young woman said she plans to teach her daughter about family planning when the time is right.
“I will tell my daughter, you know what, you should not get pregnant at an early age. You need to have a child by choice, not by chance,” Nantatya said.
Lisa Ryan reported this story in Uganda as a press fellow of the UN Foundation.
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