How are young women leading action on gender-based violence?

Photos of Margaret Nantango and Margaret Atieno
Margret Nantongo and Margaret Akinyi Atieno are taking their call for action on GBV to the heart of their communties.

We spoke to two young female leaders from Kenya and Uganda who are pushing for gender equality and tackling the gender-based violence that fuels HIV in their communities.

In sub-Saharan Africa, six out of seven adolescents who acquire HIV are teenage girls. And young women aged 15–24 are twice as likely to be living with HIV as men.

Harmful gender norms that sanction gender-based violence and deny women the right to make decisions about their lives are driving infections.

Margaret Akinyi Atieno in Kenya and Margret Nantongo in Uganda, two activists affected by HIV, spoke with us about the urgent work they are doing to bring about change.

What are young women experiencing when it comes to gender-based violence?

Margaret A: Every day there are cases of gender-based violence, and since COVID-19 cases have been increasing, especially for girls and young women. Most cases are sexual violence, so there’s a big correlation with HIV infections. Most Kenyan communities are patriarchal. The family breadwinner is the man, and this gives men a lot of power to do anything. So, you see this ripple effect in terms of new HIV infections.

Margret N: It’s the same in Uganda – men are seen as superior so women and girls [are told they] shouldn’t question them. There is a high number of gender-based violence incidents, more especially during lockdown when men were staying at home. We are also seeing increased teenage pregnancies among girls ages 12- 17. So these young girls also stand high chances of contracting HIV. It’s realised that our fellow adolescents need us more than ever before.

Margaret A: Another issue is socio-cultural practices. In some Kenyan communities, when a girl reaches a certain age, they are subjected to female genital cutting and forced into marriage.

Faced with such gender inequality, what can young women do? What are you doing?

Margret N: We empower our fellow young women and girls – they connect with us because we come from where they come from. Through dialogues we give other young women knowledge. So they know that if they are raped they should go to the health facility, test for HIV and ask for PEP. And we will also follow up – has this girl gotten PEP? Is she taking her tablets? Will she come back for retesting?

On top of this we do initiatives to involve those who make the decisions that affect our lives. As it is us who are facing these issues, it’s important that we young women are leading the change. If this was led by people who were older or who did not understand young women’s issues it would not be as effective.

Margret N: There is now a realisation that we young women … have a lot of things to deal with, but if we are given the chance we will find ways to overcome these things. I come from a poor background and my parents were HIV positive. So I’m fighting for other young women not to go through what I went through.

#BreaktheBias is this year’s International Women’s Day theme. Do you face bias from people in positions of power, such as politicians, or do they support your efforts to end gender-based violence?

Margaret A: It can be difficult. Previously, you could find that something was being developed on issues affecting young women but you’re invited at the tail end, or maybe they exclude you because of your gender or because you’re a young person.

Margret N: But it’s important to create allies. Through Empowered for Change we have learnt how to approach a stakeholder, how to address the issue with them in a way they will understand. We hold stakeholder meetings, we talk to them directly, openly. By learning these things we have gained confidence.

Margaret A: Yes, we’re gaining confidence… Through Empowered for Change we’ve learnt research skills, for example. In Nairobi we’re conducting research on access and uptake of HIV, gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health services among young people. This is empowerment. We, the young women, are doing this research. And we, the young women, are the ones who will be interviewing the key decision-makers and presenting the evidence.

What are some of the successes you’ve had in working with allies to tackle gender-based violence?

Margaret A: In Mombasa county we have worked with the police to set up gender-based violence response desks in police stations. I’ve been working with Kasarani police station – the officer on the response desk there has been trained and is now well equipped to respond to cases of gender-based violence. Previously, there was the notion that the police didn’t take gender-based violence seriously. But now the duty bearers are responding to cases, and by doing so they are affirming to young women that the police are people to run to.

Margret N: When we raised our issues, they [government officials in Uganda] advised us to form local committees so that gender-based violence cases can be reported. This has been a success. Each committee has para-social workers who tell us which different entities need to be involved with each case – a probation officer, a counsellor, for example – and we are working well with these entities, linking young women to the support they need.

Margaret A: Psychosocial support is so important. We have also been closely working with the Ministry of Gender as Kenya is establishing gender-based violence recovery centres, where survivors can access justice and receive psychosocial support to recover from the trauma.

Margret N: Access to services too – we’ve been working with health workers to extend outreaches to villages, so that young women and girls there can access free services for gender-based violence and HIV testing.

Margaret A: It is satisfying that other young women can see what we’re doing. It shows them they can also raise their voice. I’ve had young women tell me they admire the work I’m doing… so you take the opportunity to mentor them and show them how they can fight for the change we want to see.

How hopeful are you that real, sustainable change on gender-based violence and HIV can happen for young women?

Margaret A: We are making progress…Young women only lack information, but once we’ve been empowered with this information and have our capacities built, we’re able to take up decision-making spaces, leadership positions, to fight for our rights. That’s why continuous capacity building is so important.

Holding governments to account can be difficult but there are ways to do it. Kenya has made 12 commitments to end gender-based violence by 2026. So we can measure progress on how this is going. By tracking it, if Kenya does not achieve these targets, we can revert to the government and tell them.

Margret N: Our voices are being heard more than they were before, and there is change. So let us be confident to do things that move us forward as strong women. What I would like to see in the future is women and girls, at all levels, sitting at the same table as men, discussing issues without discrimination, chairing the meeting, tabling the agenda, doing things in the same way men are doing.

Empowered for Change is funded by the New Venture Fund and supported by Frontline AIDS. The consortium consists of LVCT Health Kenya, Uganda Youth Coalition on Adolescent SRHR and HIV (CYSRA) and Public Health Ambassadors Uganda (PHAU).


Gender equalityGender-based violenceHIV prevention