While we have for decades decried poverty, gender discrimination, and a host of other issues for driving women dis-empowerment, in Uganda, alarming rates of teenage pregnancies are becoming a major cause for worry to the women rights movement and a possible threat to national development. Pregnancy rates amongst teenage girls are quoted at 25% (Uganda Population Secretariat, 2011), making Uganda one of the countries with the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Sub-Saharan Africa. One would think that at this age, any child should be acquiring an education which would brighten their future prospects; unfortunately, for many young women this is not the case.
The costs related to teenage pregnancies are immense. Teenage mothers are often not able to complete secondary school which makes it difficult for them to find decent jobs to take care of themselves and their children. Consequently many children of teenage mothers are unable to get an education and they too are likely to fall into poverty creating a vicious cycle of early pregnancies, illiteracy and poverty which can be hard to break. Moreover, maternal deaths are higher in teenage mothers compared to older women; (World Health Organization) this does not only pose a challenge in responding to maternal and infant mortality but can be financially straining to families in terms of providing health care to the teenage mother particularly when complications arise during pregnancy or during child delivery.
Sexual abuse of children is on the rise in Uganda, ANPPCAN (African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect) reports that “at least 628 children are defiled per month countrywide and that even though the Penal Code Act was amended to give tougher sentences to defilers, this is not being implemented”. This state of affairs is partly to blame for the skyrocketing teenage pregnancies (Uganda Bureau of Statistics, UDHS 2011). However, it would be unfortunate for us to assume that all sexual interactions by teenagers are coerced, sometimes teenagers have consensual sex- often times this is clandestine in nature out of fear of rebuke from parents and community leaders. Often, this kind of sex is not protected due to the presumed risks involved in purchasing, carrying a condom or other forms of contraceptives.
This highlights a big problem; how accessible are contraceptives for young people? Various myths surrounding the usage of contraceptives still exist and these have left many people ignorant about contraceptives, how they should be used and their possible side effects. It is no news that one of the reasons why the country’s population growth rates are escalating is because of low use of contraceptives. Contraceptives’ use stands at 24% and the unmet need for contraceptives stands at 34% according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey. Youth Friendly Services are still very limited; only 7% of health facilities in Uganda provide Youth Friendly Services (Ministry Of Health, 2007). Young people tell of how a health care provider looked at them disapprovingly when they asked about condoms or how they were discouraged to use any form of contraception reasoning that it would reduce their chances of having children.
Whereas the “ideal” remains that young people should abstain until they are married, it is our duty to provide them with accurate and comprehensive sexuality education so that they can make informed sexuality related decisions. Undoubtedly, ensuring that young people can access youth friendly health related services creates a platform for free expression and exchange of ideas and experiences not only between the health care provider and the young people but also amongst peers.
Society increasingly remains attached to conservative beliefs regarding the roles of women in society; child birth, marriage, raising children amongst others. In fact, traditional and cultural norms encourage marriage and child bearing at an early age and some adolescents face pressure from families to marry young and begin child bearing early (Sekiwunga and Whyte, 2009: 120).
These not only perpetuate sexual exploitation of girls and early marriages but can potentially reduce a woman’s potential to negotiate the use of contraceptives and whether to have or not to have sex. In certain communities, teenage mothers end up getting married off sometimes to men old enough to be their fathers and any chances of going back to school are in the very least hopeless. The general belief- a belief that has been held for generations in a significant number of Ugandan communities is that all women are destined to be wives and mothers at some point in their lives and when it comes to having children the earlier it is done the better. Therefore, to some teenage pregnancy is not such a big deal.
The country has put in place various policies to address teenage pregnancies but like many other policies, these have largely remained on paper and implementation has been very minimal. For instance the National Adolescent Policy states that pregnant adolescent girls should be readmitted to school after they have delivered their children but this does not happen in most cases. Often, schools are not willing to re-admit a teenage mothers claiming that such students would set bad examples for the rest of the students. Teenage mothers face stigma, from their peers, families and even the teachers. This stigma turns schools and often homes very hostile that the teenage mothers often prefer to stay out of school while others end up running from their homes.
There is an unmistakable link between poverty and early pregnancies. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), adolescents from poor families are more likely to get pregnant. The pregnancy rate for adolescents from poor families stands at 41% while that for adolescents from wealthier families is 16% (UDHS, 2006: 62). Children from poor families are more likely to involve in actions that put them at risk of sexual exploitation while others trade sex to make ends meet.
It is worthy to note that Uganda faces an orphan phenomenon; there are currently 1.8 million children who have lost one or both parents in Uganda (UBOS, 2005). In cases of child headed households, the odds that children will engage in various sexual activities in exchange for money which could potentially lead to sexual exploitation and consequently to early pregnancies are very high.
The problem of teenage pregnancies is evidently sustained by a host of issues as noted above and there is no magic bullet when it comes to responding to the problem. Clearly, there is a need for increased implementation of the very good policies and legislation that the government has put in place. Sensitizing the masses about the problem at hand, its impact on families and communities would go a long way in combating harmful cultural beliefs and norms. Similarly, improving the livelihoods of the chronically poor and putting in place social protection mechanisms would ensure that children are less vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Everybody has a role to play in ensuring that children grow up healthy and empowered and that their different potentials can be harnessed- for without empowered children, no nation has a future.