Drawing from her own experience, Heroine of Health, Margaret, is being honored for her tremendous work in sexual and reproductive health in her community
At the World Health Assembly this year, GE Healthcare and Women in Global Health, a movement that strives for greater gender equality in global health leadership, are joining forces to honor and celebrate women in global health. Margaret Nakanjakko from Uganda is being honored as a 2018 Heroine of Health for her tremendous work in sexual and reproductive health. Her story is a story of strength and perseverance – she never learned about reproductive health, her own mother had 22 pregnancies and 16 children, and at the age of 18 when Margaret became pregnant, she was kicked out of the family home and her son was taken from her. Now, fueled by her own experience, she’s helping transform the lives of girls and women in her community.
Margaret, tell us more about the work that you do within your organization?
Margaret: I work at Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU) where I offer sexual and reproductive health information to communities and to different groups such as teenagers, in and out of school youths and women. I also offer counseling to all groups of people, especially the vulnerable in the communities and supporting them to access sexual and reproductive health services. I have been doing this for almost 19 years now.
Parents sometimes either bring or call me home to talk to their sons and daughters. Young couples even come to my home and I also meet them in the communities and churches. At work they call me maama w'amawanga, which literally means “mother of nations.” Not because I have too much to offer but because I love to follow my passion and give my ears and mouth with anyone. If my life was healed by the knowledge I gained in RHU, the same knowledge can save someone else.
What inspired you to get involved?
Margaret: My personal painful experience of getting pregnant while still in school and having my son taken from me inspired me to use my own experience to help others in my community. I was 18 when I became pregnant and my family kicked me out of the house. I was so ashamed when it happened, I even tried to take my own life three times. But I eventually found work as a janitor at RHU and I began learning about reproductive health and my rights. I learned about contraception as well and thought “Oh, I wish I had known about this earlier.” I was eager to learn more and I learned fast. Eventually, I earned a spot as a community health educator where I focused on counseling young people and I shared my own story to better connect with them. As I was talking to them, I was also absorbing it myself and I started feeling like I am me, I can own my life, and make decisions for my life. I feel grateful to RHU, it’s there that I started feeling empowered and now, it’s satisfying to know that I can help someone out there who is facing similar hardships.
In your opinion, what more can be down to improve the lives of young girls in Uganda?
Margaret: Not all people fail because they are foolish but because society and culture has narrowed their mindset. In Uganda, girls are scared to express what they feel to their parents. They are not taught about sex and still today, feel they should not talk about it. If we can make parents trust us with their children then we may be able to impact what they can't. Girls who are empowered in sexual and reproductive health are confident. They learn love, respect, value and start believing in themselves.
The people down here, they are capable of being anyone but they need help. Ignorance is the worst disease. In certain countries where girls don't have information and where they are not empowered, they are blamed for what they have fallen into instead of being helped. If the policymakers consider that, I tell you, our girls can go far.
Margaret Nakanjakko is one of nine women being recognized at this year’s World Health Assembly as part of the Heroines of Health honors. Learn more about the 2018 Heroines of Health here.