Sarah* lives in a humble homestead in Kapisa Village, Mazimasa, a sub-county in the Butaleja District, Eastern Uganda.  Her homestead is composed of three grass-thatched houses, each with their own assembly of chickens, ducks, goats and naked and half-naked children loitering around. It is an agricultural area, and not a wealthy one. The financial pressure on Sarah’s family is significant; it makes them all vulnerable in different ways.

 

When Sarah was 12 years old and a pupil at primary school, she met a man who offered her 10,000 UG shillings (which is the equivalent to 3 USD), to sleep with her. This is a common custom for the region, where there is a high level of poverty and a prevalent lack of information about safe sexual practices. That has contributed to the rising rate of teenage pregnancies and makes young girls vulnerable to charming men who promise them heaven and earth in order to have sex with them. When the man disappeared and Sarah’s story came to light, it did not go down well with her parents. They chased her away from home, and it was not until she asked for forgiveness that she was given a second chance. Then she learned that she had fallen pregnant. Her parents, angry and disappointed, stopped buying her scholastic materials. There was no pursuit of justice against the man who impregnated Sarah; the family were too poor to find him, and so Sarah braced herself for a lonely pregnancy and childbirth. She knew then that she would have to fend for herself from now on. She gave birth alone at the age of 13.

 

In a poignant reminder of history repeating itself, Sarah’s daughter, too, fell pregnant as an early adolescent. She gave birth at the age of 13, and Sarah, now just 27 years old, became a grandmother.

 

According to the 2016 Uganda Health Demographic Survey (UHDS 2016), 1 in 4 Ugandan girls between the age of 15 and 19 has either had a child or is pregnant. In Butaleja, the percentage is much higher, with the rate of teenage pregnancy sitting at 30%. The consequences of this are far-reaching, and almost exclusively negative. The reason girls should be girls – and not brides or mothers – is because is being a mother is mentally, physically and sociologically dissonant with childhood. It deprives girls the chance to attain education, forge their own life paths, and maintain good health and wellbeing. Upon falling pregnant, Sarah lost access to what should have been a fundamental right to remain in school, and her dreams – whatever they might have been – were forced beyond her reach.

 

Teenage pregnancies often cause young girls to suffer complications like prolonged and obstructed labour, often resulting in obstetric fistula or even death. Statistics from Uganda’s Ministry of Health indicate that there are 200,000 cases of fistula in Uganda and 1,900 cases are added every year. Of the 6,000 maternal deaths recorded every year at a national level, 1,440 (24%) are teenage mothers. This means that almost 4 teenage mothers die in labour every day. The evidence is clear that younger bodies are not physiologically mature enough to navigate pregnancy and childbirth safely, by comparison to older ones. According to the UDHS 2016, a girl between the age of 15 and 19 is twice as likely to die during pregnancy or child birth compared to a woman in her 20s.  If she is under 15, the risk is multiplied 5-fold.

 

And even for girls who do not conceive, an early sexual experience can be dangerous. The onset of sexual activity for girls in Uganda are usually groomed and assaulted by older men who usually have had multiple sexual partners. Though the majority of these partners, according to the Uganda Aids Commission, are likely to also be schoolgirls, the HIV risk is significant.

 

As with all public health initiatives – and make no mistake, the culture of sexual activity between adult men and young girls is a public health crisis – the economic argument supports morality. The World Bank estimates that Uganda’s productivity would be $15 billion USD higher if teenage girls delayed pregnancy until their early twenties, and instead acquired a skill that they could use professionally. Therefore, there is no reason we should not commit to “LET GIRLS BE GIRLS” by keeping them in school and improving on their skills and productivity. Uganda would be able to achieve its development agenda goals – including reduction in its unemployment rate – if more of its young population were given the chance to be engineers, nurses, artists, innovators… and, when the time is right, parents.

 

 

 

*Not her real name

 

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