Immaculate Aparo (facing away) speaking with a DREAMS trainer. Photo credit: URC

Immaculate Aparo, 24, is a first-year student of public administration at Gulu University in Uganda and a business owner who sells secondhand shoes, dresses, and other goods.

She also is a family planning parish coordinator in Akokulum, Gulu District, in the Determined Resilient Empowered AIDS-Free Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) program, an ambitious public-private partnership which aims to reduce rates of HIV among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW).

As a parish coordinator, Aparo trains DREAMS program peer girls in her community and six neighboring parishes on family planning choices. The USAID Regional Health Integration to Enhance Services in Northern Uganda (RHITES-N, Acholi) Activity supports the implementation of the DREAMS initiative in the three districts of Gulu, Agago, and Omoro targeting AGYW from ages nine to 24.

The work is important as the Acholi sub-region has a high unmet need for family planning: Only 30 percent of women aged 15-49 years in Acholi sub-region used any family planning method, according to the 2016 Uganda Demographic Health Survey.

Aparo’s achievements happened only after a long, difficult journey. Her father died in 2008, leaving her mother – a subsistence farmer – to single-handedly care for seven children. Aparo dropped out of Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School. When she turned 16 years old – following local custom – her paternal uncle and her mother agreed on the bride price for Aparo to be the second wife of a proposed suitor.

“Life was not easy,” Aparo says. “He used to mistreat me. He forced me into sex. I returned home after giving birth to my first son.”

Two Failed Arranged Marriages

Aparo enrolled in school, but her paternal uncle discouraged her, saying she would not benefit from school. (Her paternal uncle assumed the role of her father.) Aparo’s husband demanded her family return the bride price. Her mother also discouraged her from studying.

“She said I was wasting time in school,” Aparo says. “All my agemates were stable in marriage.”

A second arranged marriage lasted only six months. She returned home pregnant and discovered she was HIV positive at an antenatal care clinic.

In March 2019, she heard about enrollment of adolescents and girls aged between 15 to 24 years into the DREAMS program. She attended the training on HIV and on family planning as well as a Stepping Stones program on gender, HIV, and relationship skills.

Investing in Herself

Aparo’s peers, recognizing her leadership skills, selected her as a family planning parish coordinator to facilitate trainings for family planning choices among AGYW. A month later, she gave birth to her second child. Soon after, Aparo started using family planning, choosing the implant method. “I was scared of getting pregnant again when my child is still young,” she said.

After the training, she decided to start her own business using savings from produce she had raised and sold herself. From her business, she earns an average profit of UGX 450,000 per month. She uses this income to support her family, and pay school fees for herself and her son, who is now in primary two. She saves UGX 15,000 with her DREAMS group per week, kept in a joint bank account. She hopes to invest further in her business.

“My mum is now proud of me,” Aparo said. “I hear she tells people that ‘my daughter is at university and is a parish coordinator training adolescent girls and young women on family planning choices.’ My advice to other girls is that they should not lose hope. With determination, they can complete school and inspire others.”