“I can’t believe I’m this person – I thought my life had ended at 12.”

Link Up,  Healthy people,  Sexual and reproductive health and rights,  Adolescents and young people,  Uganda

“I feel I can’t believe I’m this person because I thought my life had really ended with what happened when I was 12.”

At 19, Mariam Nansereko’s life looks vastly different from her early teenage years. Now a peer counsellor at Kisakye Youth Centre based at MildMay Uganda and running a small sewing business, Mariam is working towards a future she thought she would never have.

When she was 12 she became pregnant by an older man and would later find out that she was also living with HIV. Blamed by those around her for what had happened, Mariam was subject to bullying and abuse.

“I couldn't handle being at home, people were calling me all sorts of names. Anyone I had a disagreement with would refer to me as ‘the one who got pregnant while still in school’, ‘the one who doesn't even know the kid’s father’, they called the kid all sorts of things,” says the softly spoken Mariam.

“Because of all those names, and living close to the man who had made me pregnant, I couldn't handle the pressure. I decided to come and live with my grandmother in Kampala.”

Although labour was a blur, when her daughter was born Mariam remembers feeling both “happy but also sad”.

“I was wondering. ‘How am I going to look after this baby, after the way everyone had talked at home? A baby without a father?”

Despite all that had happened, Mariam called her child – who was born HIV free – Gift. But without antiretroviral treatment, Mariam became ill and was admitted to hospital, leaving her grandmother to look after her baby.

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It was here that Mariam began HIV treatment. Realising her age, a health worker referred her to MildMay’s Kisakye Youth Centre, part of the Link Up programme, which was implemented in Uganda by Alliance Linking Organisation, Community Health Alliance Uganda (CHAU) and a range of partners to empower young people to take control of their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). It is estimated that around 7% of young people in Uganda are living with HIV yet many young people are either unaware of – or unable to access – contraceptives, family planning and HIV services.

“I am so grateful for the people who advised my grandmother to take me to MildMay because that was the genesis of my life, of who I am now,” says Mariam. “The staff are so good, they are so devoted, there’s real love there; it really is another home away from home.”

At MildMay, Mariam was introduced to a sewing group for young mothers aged between 12 and 18. Before long, she was selected to become a peer educator in the group, talking to other young women about sexual and reproductive health, sexual rights and HIV.

“I really loved the training a lot,” says Mariam. “I gained hope, and started to feel less stressed, I really saw there was a future for me.

“After that, I really, really started working. I started mobilising my peers, both boys and girls, to go and test for HIV. I really worked during that time and referred very many cases. One was a girl who was raped by the stepfather and the mother thought they were in love so had abandoned her. I encouraged her to go to MildMay.”

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Mariam is now involved in many aspects of Kisakye Youth Centre including door-to-door mobilisation to spread messages of SRHR and HIV to young people and encourage them to access services and support. Now a respected advocate, Mariam gives talks at conferences and training sessions to influence those working on SRHR and HIV and encourage other young people facing similar situations to her to take control of their sexual health. Any money she earns through her work, she put towards materials for her sewing business.

“I feel inspired that I’m able to reach people, some of who are in my situation. I’m able to listen. I’m able to come out and help them in one-way or another. I have the experience and this encourages them to go for services,” says Mariam.

“Link Up is obviously about SRH and HIV, and I think one of the things that’s good about the programme is that it’s very real. It’s very realistic. So providing condoms, acknowledging that young people will have sex, but to protect themselves.

“We do follow-ups for certain cases, especially those who have just been tested and are HIV positive and those who have gone through things like rape. We follow up with them up and make sure that they adhere to HIV drugs, especially if it’s their first time on treatment.

“But we also follow up to make people see the world in a different way – to share their story and let them know that they're not the only ones, that it’s not a beginning or the end of the world – for them to continue living in a positive way.”

Mariam stresses the importance of information, of knowing what’s available, whatever someone’s situation or need, regardless of age. “Maybe I could have gotten PEP [post exposure medication that can stop HIV transmission] and wouldn’t have contracted HIV. I could have been given emergency contraceptives and I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant.”

Regardless of her past, Mariam is set on making her life, and that of her child’s, a good one and has great hopes for Gift’s future.

“I’m so determined to look after her, to see her through school, to make sure she goes through education, gets a job and stuff. I don’t want Gift to have the same life I had.

“Even before I became pregnant, life wasn’t easy. I grew up with a [positive] mother and I can’t believe that I’m now healthy because, right from childhood things have not been easy,” she says. “But I look back at my journey and see that in life there is no situation that is permanent.

“If it was not for Link Up and CHAU maybe I wouldn't be able to share what I’m sharing and do what I’m doing, touching those lives. I’m so thankful for Link Up for selecting me.

“My grandmother suggested that I should maybe get married so that I could have someone to take care of me and of Gift, but I think maybe it’s not time yet.

“I think I’ll be able to finish school, get a good job, and maybe get married sometime in the future. I’m now more focused; I’m looking forward to going back to school. I want to continue looking after my daughter.”