Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in Uganda has steadily grown since the early 1990s. Back then SRHR majorly focused on cure and control of HIV/AIDs. The extremely high rate of HIV infection experienced in Uganda during the 1980s and early 1990s created an urgent need for people to know their HIV status. The only option available to them was offered by the Uganda Blood Transfusion Service (UBTS), which carries out routine HIV tests on all the blood that is donated for transfusion purposes. Because the need for testing and counseling was great, a group of local non-governmental organizations such as The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), Uganda Red Cross Society, Nsambya Home Care, the Uganda Virus Research Institute together with the Ministry of Health established the AIDS Information Centre in 1990 to provide HIV testing and counseling services with the knowledge and consent of the client involved. This was the beginning of a dream that is steadily on the path to being realized – with young people more likely to make informed life choices and prioritize living a healthy lifestyle.
HIV/AIDS interventions have since then taken on a multi-sectoral approach, going beyond being a health issue to public health and human rights issue resulting in the birth of a Multi-sectoral AIDS Control Approach in 1992. In light of this, the Uganda AIDS Commission which was also founded in 1992 took on the mandate of mainstreaming all HIV/AIDS interventions in Uganda including policy development. A variety of approaches to AIDS education have been employed, ranging from the promotion of condom use to ‘abstinence only’ programmes.
In early 2000 the Ministry of Health implemented birth practices and safe infant feeding counseling , the Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) services in 2001 according to guidelines by the WHO. Uganda was the first country to open a Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) clinic in Africa called the AIDS Information Centre and pioneered the concept of voluntary HIV testing centers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
As specific needs grew in terms of rallying support and funding for these interventions, the approach of working with champions as change advocates came up. These were charged with promotion and support change. The champions were to be at the front-line as intermediaries between the organizations that wanted to implement change and the people in their sphere of influence. Because these individuals backed the organization’s decision to enact change, they played a cheerleader role for the changes to happen in addition to convincing others why the change was a good idea. This they did by tapping into the passions that attracted the masses to them in the first place or even sharing their own experiences. While the champion was passionate about the change and even supportive, he or she did not necessarily have the authority to enact specific steps toward implementing the change. Rather, he or she would ‘advocate’ for the change by publicly support it and recommending it to others.
One of the first champions of SRHR in this regard was the First Lady HE Janet Kataha Museveni who championed PMTCT campaigns, Girl Child Campaigns and Abstinence only programs. The President H.E Yoweri Museveni, has promoted this as a success story in the fight against HIV and AIDS, arguing it has been the most effective national response to the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the key interventions he has championed has been the PIASCY Program for Primary and Secondary Schools and for Teachers and Students and the “The Presidential Fast-track Initiative on ending HIV/AIDS in Uganda by 2030.” This is the first such initiative in Africa and the entire world.
The early 2000s saw the emergence of amazing advocacy and awareness interventions on HIV/AIDS, Family Planning and Contraceptive Use, Teenage Pregnancy and Child Marriages, Gender Based Violence, Youth Friendly Services and Sexuality Education. Notable advocacy and awareness campaigns included; the Be A Man Campaign, Prevention+, Live Your Dream, Let Girls Be Girls, It’s Not on, It’s Not Safe, I know kati and many more. These have picked up the use of champions or ambassadors in being key change makers and advocates for such interventions majorly; musicians like Joanita Kawalya, Bobi Wine; religious leaders like Rev Gideon Byamugisha, Sheikh Mohammad Ali Waiswa, key figures like Dr Maggie Kigozi, Hon. Matia Kasaija a strong advocate for family planning and reproductive health, Hon. Dr. Chris Baryomunsi a Ugandan physician, public health specialist, demographer, the Nnabagereka of Buganda has also championed campaigns on safe motherhood among others.
Between 2015 and 2018 the same SRHR champions and ambassadors have been engaged in several interventions by Civil Society Organizations, and they have played a key role in ensuring that key messages are given to young people, key policy makers and key government technical personnel to ensure critical advocacy interventions and policies are implemented.
SRHR Champions and Ambassadors are motivated public figures and change makers who have the ability to influence policy and decisions. These champions take action through empowering and demonstrating that meaningful advocacy can bring about desired change. That for example male involvement in family planning can result in solving serious reproductive health challenges such as HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence and maternal deaths. Champions are crucial and have played key roles in addressing family planning, sexuality education, gender based violence issues with the authorities especially by lobbying for increased health funding. We need champions to advocate improved Sexual Reproductive Health services and information especially for key groups like young people, people living with HIV, sex workers, and in rural communities where the people there need them most.
Recently, there have been key advocacy activities like dialogues, media campaigns, regional and national stakeholder meetings and we have been having the same champions and advocates from one event to another, from one CSO to another from one media house to another and even on online platforms. These same faces always appearing in the different events means we have to widen our scope of champions that can easily be associated with key advocacy issues. These need to be empowered with skills and information and how best to package the SRHR information to easily be consumed by the key target groups.