Covid-19 induced lockdowns have led to a worrying spike in teenage pregnancies, especially in the poorer rural areas. This has added to a problem that existed even before the pandemic, despite laws against underage sex. Epajjar Ojulu, in Kampala, ponders what can be done to stem this trend.
When the Ugandan government closed schools in March 2020, soon after the first case of Covid-19 was cited in the country, no one imagined at the time that the virus would further escalate the rising rate of child and teenage pregnancy rates in the country.
According to Makerere University School of Public Health, the number of teenage pregnancies rose by 28% during the first Covid lockdown last year. Overall, Uganda has fallen short of her pledge at the East, Central and Southern Africa Health Community (ESAC-HC) conference in Lusaka, February 2020 to reduce teenage pregnancies from 25% to 13% by next year. Instead, the rate is on the rise.
Covid-19 has created new and bigger challenges in reducing child and teenage pregnancies in the country. The Education ministry says pregnancies among schoolgirls have risen by 30% since the outbreak of Covid-19.
The figure is higher in the poorer rural districts of the north and east. Unlike girls in urban areas, rural teenagers are naive and vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, says Margaret Aciro, a teacher at Kalongo Primary School in the northern district of Gulu.
The coronavirus threatens to reverse the gains in rebuilding northern Uganda’s social infrastructure – including education and moral values – ravaged by two decades of insurgencies led by the priestess Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement of 1986-87, and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Movement between 1987-2009.
During that period, a high percentage of girls in the region were raped and made sex slaves. In contrast to the central and western regions of the country which have prospered economically, primitive 18th-century grass-roofed huts of mud and reeds, dirty spring water sources shared by humans and livestock, footpaths for roads and abject poverty are a sore reminder of the northern region’s continuing lack of progress.
According to the Comboni Missionaries Samaritans, a Catholic charity working in the region, over 17,000 girls were made pregnant, some of them as young as 12 years old, by both teenage boys and adult men in the eight districts of northern Uganda during the first two months of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. Comboni Missionaries Samaritans estimate the number of pregnant girls in the eight districts to have risen threefold after the first lockdown 18 months ago.
The northern region is not the only one facing the problem. The health ministry says the eastern Busoga sub-region has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the country. It says 45% of deliveries in the region are for girls below 17 years of age. In Kamuli, one of the districts, over 7,000 teenage girls became pregnant last year.
In the eastern Mount Elgon region, teenage pregnancies have been exacerbated by circumcision festivities, the Imbalu, a tradition treasured by the Bagisu ethnic mountain community. Circumcision is a rite of passage to adulthood for boys.
During circumcision festivities, girls and boys are allowed free involvement, usually overnight, in the run-up to circumcision itself. Promiscuity is believed to be largely tolerated. Health officials in Namisindwa, another district in the region, say there is usually an upsurge of teenage pregnancies during and soon after the circumcision season. District health officials say this reflects the endeavour by the newly initiated adults to prove their adulthood through sex.
Law has no impact
Although Parliament passed a law in 1990 which criminalised sexual intercourse between men and girls below 18 years as an offence of defilement and imposed a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for the culprits, there is no evidence of it having an impact on teenage pregnancy rates.
Since the law was passed, few have been indicted, an indication that the economic, social and cultural realities have rendered the law inapplicable. Some cultures in Uganda allow teenage girls to be married.
In Uganda, there is a perception that once a girl develops breasts and begins menstrual periods, she is considered an adult ready to be married. This why the majority of girls who drop out of school are married before they are 18 years old.
Besides, parents of pregnant girls have openly opposed the jailing of the culprits as that denies the victims and their children vital financial and material support from them. Instead, families of pregnant girls prefer negotiating for financial compensation or bride price. At the time the law was passed, Parliament did not consider the need for funds to cater for the children and mothers in the event that the culprits were jailed. As it stands now, that law is a white elephant.
Although the country has made some economic progress in the past three decades, extreme income inequalities exist, with some households living in abject poverty. Testimonies by some girls give grim accounts of how they were lured into sex in return for money, food and sanitary pads their parents or guardians could not afford to buy them.
The Ugandan government has no contingency programmes to feed and support economically vulnerable sections of the population.
Covid-19 has expanded and deepened the plight of vulnerable teenage girls. Some of their parents, who depend on daily wages or incomes from the informal sector for survival, cannot afford to buy food and other essentials of life for their families. In order to survive, some parents have allowed their adolescent children to hawk fruits, vegetables and manufactured goods to earn the badly needed income.
It is thought that these activities have increased the girls’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse, says Ms Stella Zziwa, a professional counsellor in Kampala.
Some experts blame rising pregnancies on the poor parental care or lack of it, and the erosion of moral, cultural and social values. The traditional role of the parents has vanished, with men abandoning children with their mothers, says Zziwa.
A recent survey of urban areas indicates that six out of 10 women are single mothers, most of them engaged in shady activities, including prostitution to feed and educate their children.
Social values have been eroded to the extent that some victims blame close relatives, including uncles, brothers, cousins and even fathers for making them pregnant. “Cases of incest are on the rise,” says Joan Naiga, a local leader in Kamuli town.
Resistance to contraception
The government has not made any headway in putting in place an appropriate policy to deal with teenage pregnancies. In 2018 it announced a policy on sexual education, which emphasised abstinence from sex and the use of contraception and condoms.
The policy was opposed by the Catholic and Anglican churches, which between them founded over 80% of government-aided schools in the country. The churches say contraception is ungodly and an affront on procreation. They argue that allowing teenagers access to sexual information, including contraception could corrupt their morals and encourage uncontrolled sexual activities to the detriment of their health and education.
Rev. Ronald Okello, the Education Secretary at the Uganda Catholic Secretariat, wants sexual information to be tailored to children’s age groups without compromising church values. His colleague, Rev. Richard Rukundo, the Children’s Ministry Co-ordinator at the Anglican Church of Uganda, says inculcating moral values in teenagers, and not giving them contraceptives and condoms, should take centre
Ms. Monica Amoding, a Member of Parliament and the Chairperson of the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association, says teenage pregnancies are a result of the information gap between parents and their daughters. She urges parents to get closer to their children to discuss sexuality.