Teenage Pregnancy: An old problem in a new world.
My uncle Ruhindi came home to visit once when I was a child. I remember the visit clearly because the usually jovial man was very distraught. We lived near the police station and Uncle Ruhindi had a case to report. It would be the first of several visits.
His daughter had been raped.
Uncle Ruhindi had two children, a boy and a girl. The girl was his firstborn and the first time I saw her, I recounted to my mother, "I saw a very beautiful girl." After inquiring about the general location within which I had cited this very beautiful girl, my mother said, "You must be talking about Ruhindi's daughter." I was nine. She was thirteen.
When I saw her again, she was fifteen and pregnant. Her father had carried her to the police station as he tried to get justice for her. She would never wear that school uniform again.
"Child, not bride" "Let girls be girls" There have been several campaigns, and yet still the world continues to rid thousands of girls of their childhood. Uganda is, according to a 2012 African Reproductive and Sexual Health Scorecard report, among the top 10 African countries with the highest adolescent fertility rate, with an adolescent fertility rate of 159 births per 1,000 young women aged 15 – 19 years.
The story of teenage pregnancy is a heartbreaking story. There is risk of complications as the body is not physically ready to bear a child. The young mother often has to dropout of school, sacrificing her education. In addition to all this, society ostracizes, continually pointing fingers at "the girl that got pregnant" and the family of the girl that got pregnant.
Uncle Ruhindi is a resident of Mubende district which is said to be among the districts with a high number of teenage mothers. In that district, nearly one in three households recording a teen that has got pregnant or has had a child. [Daily Monitor, July 11, 2013]
What this says to me is not just that we need to do something about the rate of teenage pregnancies, but also that we need to figure out a recovery system, for the pregnant teenager that is living amongst us. A system that does not involve "Get out of my house!" and "This girl brings shame" that are often said to many of these girls. A system that does not involve a risky pregnancy, or an even riskier secret abortion. One teen mom says, " “For most of this year, I have been trying to figure out whether I am a child or adult mother and whenever I think about this, I begin crying, especially when I see my friends and agemates going to school."
They need antenatal care. They need love and support. Regardless of that swelling belly, they are still children.
I had heard of only one center in Uganda that offered such services, Wakisa Ministries, so I arranged to meet with director and founder, Vivian Kityo.
Wakisa Ministries has so far helped, and sheltered, over 550 girls since its inception in 2005. It is a very limited space with the administrative offices and dormitories in one building. Vivian says there was a dormitory built on the compound- as a separate building-, but it got burnt and plans to reconstruct are still underway. At the time I visited, there was 20 girls in residence. There is no advertising done by the home for fear of being overwhelmed by the numbers.
Many girls come by themselves, but they have to provide a phone number of a relative who has to come in and given written consent on behalf of the family. "Do they think you are condoning teenage pregnancy?" I ask her. She says yes, and told me about the various phone calls that she receives. Parents will call to say, "What is she doing there? Send her away!" Vivian says that by the 7th month though, most mothers usually come. Over 90% will come to see their daughter. "They miss them."
And sometimes, the mothers have got a chance to resolve their marital problems that were caused by the pregnancy. One mother had called her earlier that day, and thanked her profusely for taking in her pregnant teen. The father had sent both mother and pregnant daughter out of his house, leaving them with no means of support. However with the daughter at Wakisa, the mother was able to move back into her marital home.
Vivian Kityo is a trained nurse, in addition to her administrative degrees that she got later in life. As an enrolled nurse at one of the hospitals in Uganda, she had encountered a 15 year-old who had attempted an unsafe abortion for fear of telling her parents about the pregnancy. "She was a very, very beautiful girl. She came in and we did everything we could. She had sepsis. We treated the infection, and had to put her on oxygen later.
She died after a week."
Seven years after, Vivian would be presiding over a Mothers' Union meeting where the women discussed teenage pregnancy. She remembered the girl from her nursing days, and a conversation started about the need for something different. "We needed to think outside the box." And there, among devout Christian mothers- women that the country thinks are very rigid- the idea of Wakisa Ministries was born, to address an increasing problem their daughters faced.
I was lucky to meet one of Wakisa's beneficiaries on the day that I was there. She said she had come to the home, at 14, and she was four months along. She was counseled, given antenatal and postnatal help. Now she has a 6-year-old daughter and is attending university, pursuing a degree in Guidance and Counseling.
The home has had some Caesarian births, no more than 10 miscarriages, 2 stillbirths and only one girl developed VVF (vesicovaginal fistula, a leakage of urine due to a birth injury). Many of these girls, hidden in their homes and chastised daily, never getting antenatal help, would never have gone back to school. If they survived being another statistic in maternal mortality.
Teenage pregnancy is said to be caused by a lot of things-poverty, lack of sex education, no family support- but blaming the girls, some victims of sexual abuse, is not getting us anywhere. With one in four teenage girls in Uganda said to have either been pregnant or had a baby, according to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2011, the numbers should tell us that. So while we attack the problem with increased support for girl child education, more openness with sex education, we also need to remember that there is a pregnant child in our home. What do we do with that child as we protect her younger sisters? Vivian says we support and counsel her.
My mother's sister got pregnant when she was 15, and still in school. My mother, who was a housewife and her guardian in the city, simply packed her off to the village, to their mother. The girl, my cousin, grew up in a very Catholic family believing for a long time that her grandparents were her parents. The circumstances surrounding her birth were not talked about. I have naturally questioned my mother about her decision at the time, and it is no different from the mother that called Vivian.
"I was completely dependent on the man [my father] and he was kind enough to take on my sister. Was I supposed to ask him to take on yet another dependent, a child that was not even his?" I think that my father might have been more receptive than my mother thought, but I can understand her not wanting to jeopardize her marriage. At the time, she was unemployed, with five children. Her life had been her husband and their children for about ten years.
I have also asked my grandmother about the childbirth process at the time. It was heartbreaking to listen to, and I knew there is such a story in just about every household in the country.
She narrated, "It was at night when the baby came. The girls [her sisters] screamed to me that she had peed on their bed. I knew that it was time, and sent their father to get a birth attendant. I moved her to the kitchen and massaged her while I instructed her."
The baby was born alive before the birth attendant arrived, on a kitchen floor of a cramped home in a refugee camp. The mother had a severe bout of cholera after, and her mother breasted the newborn. The baby grew up as the last born in her grandparents' home, only finding out her sister was actually her mother when she was about seven after a relative accidentally let that cat out of the bag.
There are a lot of conflicting customs in the new Africa, in the new Uganda. The Christians are ashamed of having children out of wedlock. The traditionalists will not have two families under one roof. We have education so it is inadvisable to make the man responsible marry the teenager. But at the same time, this is an increasing problem. Pregnancy rates amongst teenage girls are quoted at 25% (Uganda Population Secretariat, 2011).
There is also increased sexual abuse of minors. 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." The gender discrimination is as much a part of my world as it was my grandmother's.
Every month, a girl's life is changed. It is an old problem in a new world. It requires new out-of-the-box, often uncomfortable to some, solutions.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.