When Uganda ran out of vaccines shortly after the first doses arrived in March, it was another blow for girls and young women who have made extraordinary sacrifices as our country struggles to keep Covid-19 at bay.
Schools and universities were again shuttered, leaving 15 million students at home or on the streets. Workers went unpaid and fear spread through the communities. The impacts were felt first and hardest by women, especially if they were young.
Months later, the lockdown has not been fully lifted. People wait for hours in the street for the few vaccines that have crossed our borders. With less than 1% of the population fully vaccinated, we are vulnerable to more infectious and deadly variants such as Delta. But yet countries in Europe and North America hoard so many vaccines they are unable to use them all. I wonder whether their citizens know how we’re suffering? Perhaps our fate seems distant to them. So let me tell you what vaccine inequity means if you’re a young woman in Uganda.
Three-quarters of Ugandans are under the age of thirty. In the early 1980s, fewer than 5% of girls were enrolled in secondary school with most prevented from attending due to poverty and gender inequality. My generation is more likely to be educated than our mothers and grandmothers, but we are still the first to be pulled out of school during tough times.
During the pandemic, a lockdown generation lost opportunities to learn and has little hope of catching up. Only a privileged few were able to afford to learn online. The rest will bear the costs of the education emergency for the rest of their lives.
But this is not just about our right to learn. Girls and young women find safety in their schools and colleges. Education empowers them to speak up for their rights. It brings them respect in their families and communities. As education closures have forced young women home or onto the streets, predators have spotted an opportunity. A shadow pandemic of sexual abuse has spread, with an over 20% increase in pregnancies among teenage girls, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Women have been forced into marriages or to exchange sex for money to survive.
I have spent the lockdown campaigning against teenage pregnancy. I have also set up a program to get women the menstrual health products that have been denied to them during the pandemic. Shops have been closed or have not had deliveries. Families have stopped buying their girls sanitary products because they cannot afford them and also because they think they do not need them if they are not in school. I have met vulnerable young women who have sold sex so they can buy a sanitary pad.
Young Ugandans are resourceful; young women above all. I am a 22-year-old law student, and I used to sell cakes from my bakery, although that has been forced out of business by the pandemic. I also work in a grassroots justice center where we help people fight back when they are evicted from their houses or land, or when they suffer other injustices the powerful perpetuate on those who cannot afford to defend themselves.
During the pandemic, we have given young women sanitary products, but we also helped them learn how to make reusable pads which they sell to others as well. These efforts demonstrate how we have helped each other at a time when the world has largely looked away. But self-help is not enough. Uganda’s story is typical of other African countries, the continent where the world’s young people are increasingly concentrated. More than 40% of the people yet to be born this century are projected to be young Africans.
Young women across Africa demand vaccine equity. I am one of the young people that UN Secretary-General António Guterres asked to advise him on Our Common Agenda, a plan for how the world can recover from Covid-19. Guterres has warned the world faces breakdown, with societies hit by the next crisis well before this pandemic has been vanquished. His new agenda calls for a global vaccination plan to get doses into the arms of people who need it most. As the world’s leaders gather at the UN in New York this week, we are presenting them with our report and watching to see whether they will set up an emergency task force to respond to this call.
The global vaccination plan is just the start of meeting young people’s demands. Throughout 2021, we have worked with young leaders, thinkers, and activists from across the world to build an agenda for the future that makes the young the top priority for global cooperation.
We presented the Secretary-General with our proposals for a new deal for a new generation to rebuild our education systems, find us decent jobs, and stop the planetary emergency from stealing our futures. He included many of our recommendations in Our Common Agenda such as a contract for the future to protect the needs of future generations that would set out the world’s obligations to people born in this century. We urge governments to use the United Nations as a platform for their immediate implementation.
In Kampala, I will continue to help young women tackle the violence that threatens them. I will also keep working for justice in local communities. But the pandemic has taught me how much our fates are dependent on decisions made by powerful people in faraway places. And that is why I will mobilize with the world’s other young women activists in the hope that, if we speak as one, we will finally be heard.