UGANDA has for some time now had the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Sub-Saharan Africa – at over 25% – despite the existence of a law criminalizing defilement.
The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) 2011 statistics indicate that the number of teenage mothers in the West Nile sub region shot from 3.7% in 2006 to 6.6% in 2011 despite several efforts by civil society to reverse the trend.
This situation is not any better in the other parts of the country. Recent media reports revealed how 40,000 primary school girls are defiled by their very own teachers annually across the country many of whom end up pregnant.
The question then is why is such an unacceptable trend of gross human rights violations thriving amongst adolescents?
The Uganda National Adolescent Health Policy defines adolescents as people between the ages of 10 and 19 years. This is the active age when one would expect the girls of this nation to be busy in class preparing for their future and how they can participate in the development of our country. Of the national population of Uganda, adolescents represent a considerable 25%.
Whenever we have discussed the challenges women of this country are facing, we have discussed issues such as gender discrimination, domestic violence, poverty and ownership of land etc. Seldom do we talk about teenage pregnancy.
Now, the problem has mutated from just another challenge women in Uganda are facing to a predicament that is a threat to the national development and attainment of the MDGs by 2015. It has quickly turned into a time bomb that we can no longer sweep under the carpet and assume all will take care of itself.
In Uganda, the adolescents from poor households are more likely to become pregnant as compared to those from well-to-do families. Because of this trend, experts have distinctly linked poverty with teenage pregnancies.
Uganda’s social economic situation today pressures an adolescent from a poor background to get involved in activities that expose them to sexual exploitation. It is a fact we cannot ran away from. This explains the ever sky-rocketing child prostitution rates in the country across the major mushrooming trading centres. The other major causes are peer pressure, insufficient sexual & reproductive health education to enable them make informed decisions, archaic cultural beliefs and norms.
It is disturbing to have the teenage pregnancy phenomenon when we are grappling with maternal health of mature women. Maternal mortality still remains high and family planning services are still a far cry for the rural and urban poor alike.
Teenage mothers and their families continue to face financial stress as they struggle to cater for the health care of the mother and baby and also find themselves at more risk in becoming victims in the country’s high infant and maternal mortality. This makes teenage pregnancy enormously expensive and it is a phenomenon which has caught many families within the vicious circle of poverty.
Recent ANPPCAN report reveal that sexual abuse is on the rise in Uganda. Across the country, at least 628 children are defiled per month.
At an annual rate, the Daily Monitor reported in 2013 that over 40,000 primary school children are defiled by their teachers.
This trend of events is worrying given that defilement is an offence in Uganda.
Uganda also faces a chronic orphan problem where over 1.8 million children have lost at least one or both of their parents. This leads to the phenomenon of child-headed families where there is no bread winner. The resultant effect is such orphans engaging in risky sexual behavior to barely earn a living and support the siblings. This inevitably leads to teenage pregnancies.
It is impossible to delineate all the causes of teenage pregnancy in Uganda here.
However, what is clear is that there is need to adjust sensitization messages to connect better with today’s adolescents, obliterate harmful cultural beliefs and norms, improve social protection mechanisms, enforce relevant laws, administratively reprimand offenders, improve livelihoods of the chronically rural and urban poor, create mechanisms to support child-headed families etc.
We have come to a point where we must agree that we cannot achieve sustainable development without protecting and empowering tomorrow’s mothers of this NATION.
We have no margin for error.
We have to act NOW!