Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus. Coronavirus was first identified amidst an outbreak of respiratory illness in the China province of Hubei and it was initially reported to the WHO on 31st/December 2019. The WHO declared the COVID-19 a global pandemic on 30 January 2020. For the case of Uganda, 31st March 2020 is when President Yoweri Museveni initiated the first total lockdown of the country as a measure to reduce on the spread of the virus. He encouraged other measures like virus-screening and quarantining.
Uganda like every other country has been going through several mutations of COVID-19 and the country is currently experiencing the second wave. On 18th June 2021, the President of the Republic of Uganda, H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni announced a second lockdown in the country in order to reduce on the public spread of COVID-19 and issued a number of strict guidelines for the sectors and the general population to follow. Among them included schools’ closure, closing of arcades, closure of the arts industry i.e. musicians, comedians and no more concerts to be physically held.
The Closure of schools meant that students and pupils would remain home. To ensure continuity of learning among these students, the government promised to provide radios and reading materials such as text books for home schooling. This the government has failed to fulfill and children remain at home idle.
As the saying goes, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop, school closures have aggravated the situation of teenage pregnancy and disruption in the economic life of households resulting in poverty. On Wednesday, 1st September, 2021, the Daily Monitor newspaper reported 143 teenage pregnancies cases in Uganda. The paper notes that the percentage for teenage pregnancies has risen from 13.7percent in 2020 to 14.1 percent in 2021.
Teenage pregnancy is when a girl between the ages of 10-19 years gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancies have grave consequences on the girl’s life and their future. It also poses a huge risk to them considering that the girl is more likely to die because of pregnancy related complications or when they attempt abortions and all these increase maternal mortality rates. s. When children become pregnant, they are isolated by people in the community, t fail to continue with school and rarely go back to school even after giving birth. It is predictable that children that conceive drop out of schools permanently. There is a fear that these survivors will not go back to school even with the issuance of the new guidelines for re-integration of child-mothers back into schools when they are re-opened.
Causes of Teen Pregnancy
Poverty. A general lack of basics such as sanitary materials. Many girls have gone in for sex in order to get basic needs like pads for example in Kiryadongo district, the Women’s Probono Initiative carried out research on menstrual hygiene and the girls confessed that in order to get themselves sanitary towels they engage in sexual activities in exchange for these necessities which results in unintended pregnancies. Poverty in Ugandan families is the reason parents cannot afford to provide menstrual pads and necessities for their children and in the course of trying to find these necessities, girls end up getting pregnant.
Limited awareness on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights. The culture of shame and silence attached to sexuality issues that are considered taboo by many communities in Uganda is a major factor that perpetuates teen pregnancy. Parents and guardians are shy about discussing sexuality issues with their children and this makes the children ignorant about how to keep themselves safe. This has resulted in teenagers seeking information from their peers and from wrong persons that in the end take advantage of them and sexually abuse them.
Culture of early marriages. In many parts of Uganda, a girl will be sent off to get married by the parents and relatives if as soon as she gets breasts and has her first period. They marry the girl child off to get bride price from the man. During this lock down, girls have settled home for now two years without studying. Girls are looking older and many parents are giving away their children to old rich men in exchange for items like cows, goats, chairs, televisions and so on. Many children have been forced into marriage due to the culture and tradition practiced by their families.
Sexual violence/abuse. Sexual violence and abuse of children sky rocketed in the lockdown. Teenagers have experienced a lot of challenges at home and in communities. Many young girls have been sexually abused by their relatives. They have been raped by their parents, guardians and some by community men. Men have taken advantage of girls staying at home and this has led to child pregnancies. The Women’s Probono Initiative handled a case where a brother raped his sister. The girl was psychologically tortured and was stopped from reporting to the authorities. We got a call from a friend of hers who she had talked to but when we called the victim, she didn’t want to talk about it. I believe there are many girls out there facing the same dilemma and are dying in silence but sexually abused by relatives and community members.
Lack of family support. Many parents have neglected their roles of educating their girls about sexuality. They leave them home alone and go to work which gives men the advantage of these lonely/ignorant girls staying home and walking aimlessly in the community. Men get this chance to talk to these girls, promise them heaven and earth leading them to sexual acts that result in pregnancies and thereafter neglect their responsibilities.
What needs to be done?
Normalize conversations on sexuality. Children need to learn that their bodies change and the changes create responsibilities on their part. Growth of breasts does not mean one is ready for sexual interaction. There will be urges to have sex but parents need to support their sons and daughters to manage this through social sporting activities among other distractions.
Talk about family planning for the mature adolescents that have the ability to practice informed consent. The Uganda government reports that most Ugandans have debuted sexual activity by the age of 14 and many are married by the age of 18. There is urgent need for introducing contraceptives to these girls. Condoms and birth control messages and services should be freely availed by government and easily accessible by those who want to access them. We should teach our young girls to always have a positive decision for their life, have self-control on their bodies and to take charge of their bodies.
Teenagers should keep in school because pregnancy is not a crime. The government should open up schools to allow these teenagers to go back to school. This helps these children to be occupied and do developmental issues and focus on their future.
Implement laws and policies that enable the girl-child to thrive. The government of Uganda should implement the policies that promote retention and reintegration of girls in schools even after they get pregnant. The Police and judiciary should punish the law breakers abusing children sexually and the rest will learn from this action taken.
Engage parents in sexuality education. It is important to engage parents, educate them on how to engage their children at an early age about sexual reproductive health. And to get consent from them for their children to be educated.
The government should offer income generating activities to support parents because of their low socio-economic status. Provide capital incentives for small businesses to thrive. Give support to the mothers to allow them support their children’s financial needs and this will reduce on child pregnancy for those girls who go in for sex because of the desire to fulfill their necessities.
Finally, offer support and counselling programs to teenagers. These young girls need counselling and guidance from their parents during this period that they are home. They need words of encouragement to enable them to push on. Mental health should be everyone’s concern right now.
By Babirye Damalie,
Women Probono Initiative