Uganda has since 2015, had a national strategy to end teenage pregnancies but that strategy has, largely, come up short, as teenage pregnancies in several disadvantaged areas of the country-continue to rise way above the national average of 25%.
Last year, for instance, Agago district in the North of the country, registered a 28 percent teenage pregnancy rate, according to Statistics from its Health department.
Similar statistics ring true for districts such as Amoro [28% teenage pregnancy rate-last year], Kole, Kamwenge, etc.
What that means, in essence, is that little has changed since the Uganda Bureau of Statistics released the 2016 Uganda Demographic Survey Report, which indicated that 25 percent of teenage girls aged between 15-19 in the country were pregnant.
The same report indicated that 19 percent of teenage girls, aged 15-19 had given birth; and another 5 percent were pregnant with their first child-at the time of interview.
An earlier report from the country’s Education and Sports ministry on the linkages between teenage pregnancy and school dropouts in 2015 -had indicated that over 97% of adolescent girl’s drop-out of school, due to early pregnancies.
Masaabachronicle looks at some of the reasons-a well intentioned strategy has not brought significant change to bear.
Uganda has through the years, scored high points, in expanding enrolment and ensuring gender parity in its education system, but the same can not said about its efforts to curb teenage pregnancies.
In many disadvantaged areas of the country, attitudes towards girl’s education, remain low on account of counter-productive cultural and traditional norms and practices.
“On the whole, it is the reason; the replication of the successes registered under enrolment and gender parity has proved hard,” Charles Wabwire, an educationist with Opportunity International, tells Masaabachronicle.
“Deeply entrenched negative traditional and cultural norms, which encourage teenage marriages and relegate girls to domestic roles in many poor areas of the country, lie at the root of the problem.”
Lydia Nakaweesi, an education consultant with the East African Partnership for education in Kampala, says the strategy has faced long odds, owing to the few and far between-engagements with local and traditional leaders, plus parents, in areas where teenage marriages and pregnancies are rife.
“In the Karamoja, Acholi, and Elgon sub regions, there are few engagements with local leaders, yet teenage girls in these places remain vulnerable,” Nakaweesi says.
Nakaweesi also adds that the strategy has been ineffectual, largely because if poverty.
“It is the preeminent driver of teen marriages and pregnancies in high risk areas.
The families that marry off their daughters early are, in most cases, living in narrow circumstances.”
Two experiential Anecdotes that speak to the tragedy of teenage pregnancy in some regions of Uganda
In a halting low toned voice; betraying anxiety, 17-year-old teenage mother Fortune Kansime points me to a wooden bench; outside her grandmother’s hovel in the sun drenched village of Rwengobe in Kamwenge district, in the west of Uganda.
Just inches away as I prepared to sit, was her visibly apprehensive grandmother.
Seated on a papyrus mat, she repeatedly clutched at her rosary as I said my salutations.
Unable to hold back tears, Kansime plaintively narrates how she unwittingly became a young mother at age 15.
“I was sexually exploited by one of the men, involved in the construction of the Fort Portal-Kamwenge road in 2015,” Kansime says
Needless to add, Kansime became pregnant.
Kansime says she was naively cajoled and later pressured into sex in a dark place where her cries for help went unheard.
I deeply regret the ordeal as it ruined my education. It shattered my dreams,” Kansime laments.
By then, Kansime was in P.6 in Rwengobe Primary school.
The experience of being a teenage single mother and not being able to continue with her education has admittedly eaten away at Kansime’s conscience.
Kansime has however not faced this challenge, alone.
Recent studies have shown that many other Ugandan girls, whose stories may not be reflected in this piece; have had their school careers cut short because of early unintended pregnancies.
The Population Secretariat indicates that of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually, 25% are teenage pregnancies.
A 2016 education ministry report shows that of the 28% girls who were sexually active, while still at school, 80.1% were pregnant. Of this, 97% dropped out of school because of pregnancy.
“Uganda has had a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies in the last decade. The prevalence is particularly high in poverty stricken rural areas and on occasion, in urban areas.As a result, a big number of adolescent girls, especially in the North, East and the West-as Kansime’s narrative shows; have had their education journeys prematurely ended,” says Wilfred Onoria, an education consultant in Mbale.
In the worst case scenarios, adolescent girls who get pregnant often bear the brunt of stigma and ostracization from their communities, peers and family members.
“Some few years back, in Kamwenge, Kibaale and Fort Portal, many school-going girls had their school journeys cut short after getting impregnated by men involved in the construction of Fort Portal-Kamwenge road.
18-year-old Harriet Kayesu, who now survives on earnings from odd jobs, was one of the victims.
Kayesu is from the placid village of Itaali, in Kamwenge and like Kansime, she dropped out of school on finding out she was pregnant.
“I did not want to drop out of school but I often felt tired in class.
After I gave birth, I found handling the double responsibility of motherhood as a student really hard. Seeing my peers still in school really puts a damper on me,” Kayesu says.
“There are many other disadvantaged young girls across the country with similar experiences like Kayesu who can be helped to rebuild their lives from a place of strength.
As the 2013 Adolescent Girl Vulnerability Index, showed, many of these vulnerable girls face disproportionate risks and distinctive consequences from their vulnerabilities,” Wabwire, says.
“The statistics of teenage pregnancies in the country are compelling enough to take action. There is a need to act now, especially in areas, where the issue is often glossed over and treated lightly, because of backward cultural norms.”
“In many ways, rural adolescent girls remain the most vulnerable segment of our population. Pregnancy affects not only their health, educational and social progress, but also their empowerment.
It is time to let our girls be girls, not mothers. A better future has to be prepared for them,” Angel Nakafero, the technical advisor in the gender unit at the education ministry says
Expert propositions on how the problem can be solved
“With the education of young girls at stake in many disadvantaged areas of the country, there is a need to go beyond the clichés, we-keep hearing from Education Ministry officials-regarding teenage pregnancies. The government has to recruit guidance counselors in schools to teach adolescents important life skills and to empower them with information about the dangers of early sex,” Onoria says.
“An education sector response in the form of sexuality education is needed. Sexuality education is still a point of contention in Uganda, but it can be an effective program in postponing sexual initiation among teenagers and youth.”
“Granted-there are already nation-wide community based initiatives to enhance girl’s education. More however, needs to be done to address the issue in the far-flung areas of the country, where girl’s education is trifled with,” Wabwire says.
“There is a need to more engagements to specifically pick the brains of local leaders in areas where the vice persists. They can provide the best ideas on how the vice can be dispensed with.”
“In the North and East, there is still a lot that needs to be done to educate the communities on the need to keep adolescent girls in school. Adolescent girls in these areas often walk long distances to school and are not supported enough by their parents. That predisposes them to rape,” Nakawesi says.
“The education ministry should as suggested in its 2019 National Strategy for Girls Education review report; earnestly create links with programs such as Operation Wealth Creation, the National Agricultural Organisation and the Uganda Women’s entrepreneurship Program to provide support to poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged girls,’ Onoria stresses.
Johnny Backri, a parent and teacher at Morulem Girls S.S in Abim district, says teenage pregnancies pose a challenge to the educational empowerment of young girls in the North.
“Child marriage and pregnancies have real trouble in the North, mostly because of poverty. More efforts need to be directed into tackling household poverty in the less privileged parts of the country,” Backri says.
Ugandan government policy
The government developed the National Strategy to end teenage pregnancies in 2015.
The National Strategy on Child Marriage is a holistic, comprehensive framework that reflects the commitment of the Uganda Government to end the practice of child marriage and other forms of violence against girls.
The goal of the strategy is to end child marriage in Uganda for enduring prosperity and social economic transformation.
The policy’s main focus areas are; improved policy and legal environment to protect children and promotion of the girl child’s rights; and improved access to quality sexual and reproductive health services, education, child protection services and other opportunities.
The others include changing dominant thinking and social norms related to child marriage in the communities; and then the empowerment of both girls and boys with correct information to enable them recognize child marriage and early pregnancy.
The Government, through the education ministry also introduced the Seed school programme where girls who drop out of school are helped to re-enroll in school and the guidelines on the retention of pregnant girls and their re-entry of child mothers in school settings, last year.
Under the guidelines, schools are required to amongst other things; create early safety nets for the prevention of early or unintended pregnancies in school settings and to support local by-laws that prevent teenage pregnancy.
There are also guidelines on how to re-admit teenage mothers into schools.
Uganda’s state minister for higher education Dr. DR. John Muyingo says that the Government has made considerable progress in improving the status of the girl child over the last decade.
A number of programmes started include Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education together with initiatives such as the additional “1.5 Points Scheme” for girls entering university to bridge the gender gap in higher education.
“These programmes,” Dr. Muyingo says, “Have led to an increase in girls’ enrollment and completion of school.”
In addition, numerous pieces of legislation that have been passed including the Penal Code Act, the Children’s Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Female Genital Mutilation Act have all worked in synergy to create a sense of increased protection of the girl child in Uganda.
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