Local therapist wins award for sexual health work in Uganda
The people of Uganda don’t believe there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In their version of the myth, if you touch the rainbow, you die. Local family and sex therapist Melissa Fritchle was working in Uganda when her students told her this story, and it had a deep poignancy for her. “We talked about how interesting it is that even something beautiful is a fear story,” she says. “Those kinds of cultural stories carry through and it means something. What we tell ourselves a rainbow means, says a lot.”
As she describes her experience in Uganda, it’s hard not to see the rainbow as a metaphor for some Ugandan attitudes toward sex and sexuality—attitudes Fritchle worked to shape and inform during her month there. In February 2010, she helped to create Uganda’s first human sexuality curriculum for professionals, and she trained counselors to lead discussions about sexuality.
This month, Fritchle won a Sexual Intelligence Award recognizing this work with HIV/AIDS counselors, nuns, and school administrators in Uganda. The award is given every year to individuals who are seen as challenging sexual fear and unrealistic expectations that undermine love, sex, and healthy relationships.
Fritchle brought her sympathetic and unapologetic approach to a country in which sexuality is rarely discussed, except maybe in the realm of HIV prevention. Even then, there is a great deal of misinformation and fear. In Uganda, Fritchle says, the attitude is that “sex is a dangerous drive, and uncontrollable, and not an instinct you can trust.”
Contributing to this fear of sex, no doubt, is the fear of HIV. Uganda is a success story as far as HIV prevention is concerned; the percentage of Ugandans with HIV has steadily dropped over the last two decades and hovers around 6 percent. However, “the stigma’s still very, very great,” Fritchle says. This is why part of Fritchle’s work was to encourage HIV/AIDS counselors, who worked with HIV positive orphans, to talk to the kids about sexuality and how to have safe sex because that “wasn’t happening.”
Another aspect of Fritchle’s work was to encourage dialogue between genders, so in one of her classes, Fritchle separated the men and woman. “I had the men speak about their experience of what it was like to grow up [as a] male in their tribal culture, and then the woman took their turn,” she says. “That turned into this discussion with the woman saying, ‘we really wish you would be with us when we give birth.’ And the men started sharing, ‘but we’re terrified for you, we’re so scared to be there, we didn’t know you wanted us there.’” Starting a dialogue was important to Fritchle because she saw men and women as interacting all the time, but not hearing or understanding each other’s experiences.
Throughout her time in Uganda, Fritchle had to walk a fine line, acknowledging and respecting cultural norms while also remaining true to her own beliefs about sex and sexuality. Nowhere was this more difficult then when discussing homosexuality.
A few months before Fritchle went to Uganda, an anti-homosexuality bill had been introduced to the Ugandan parliament. This bill, if passed, would have resulted in the death penalty for those accused of certain homosexual acts and resulted in imprisonment for anyone advocating for gay and lesbian rights. There was a prevailing sense of hostility toward homosexuality across the country. People were being targeted and jailed, and Fritchle was forced to tread carefully.
“One day in particular things got very heated in class and there was this outburst about America coming in and putting their perverse ways on other cultures,” she says. “I was proud that I was able to stand in the face of that and listen and respectfully disagree. My take was, ‘I’m not here to make decisions about your country, or tell you how to run your country, but if you want to be part of this global discussion about homosexuality, I can give you the language and the framework that you need to understand it.’”
Winning the Sexual Intelligence Award, Fritchle says, “means a lot,” and it has made her want to go back to Uganda to do more work. While she has no definite plans to return to Africa, she will be traveling to Peru this August to work at a school for disabled children.