Mukiza Calvin Junior | One in Four
One in Four
Mukiza Calvin Junior
Teenage pregnancy continues to be a major social crisis in many African countries. According to the World Health Organisation, across Sub Saharan Africa the rate of teenage pregnancy is 28%, and one in four Ugandan girls will become a mother before leaving their teens.
While some are mistakes resulting from teenagers experimenting, many of these pregnancies result from sexual and gender-based violence, as well as underage marriage and other coercive social practices, and Uganda has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. Young mothers in Uganda risk poor maternal and child health, stigma, the dangers of unsafe abortions, failure to continue school, and poverty.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has worsened conditions for girls in Uganda. According to a report in the national New Vision newspaper, a tragic increase in cases of rape and forced marriage has been observed, apparently caused by the government’s lockdown measures and the effects they had on daily life and economic stability. Many cases of rape remain un-resolved, and countless others do not even make it as far as a formal police report.
This seems to be the case in communities like Kalerwe – an informal settlement in a suburb of Kampala. Many of the families here are female-headed and survive on very small incomes. The level of literacy is very low, and residents are typically employed in informal jobs which are poorly paid and unstable. Along with a lack of access to proper education, young people are exposed to drugs and other illicit activities, while the closure of schools and many public places as a result of the pandemic left girls even more vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape.
While working in Kalerwe, I spoke with several girls who had been forced into underage marriages by their families in exchange for food and other necessities, and I also learned that, while the emergency birth control pill is sold at 10,000 UGX ($2,80) in local pharmacies, many young girls do not know that it exists while those that do often do not have the money to purchase it in case of exposure to unprotected sex. This in turn means that they are at risk of teenage pregnancy.
There is a tragic irony throughout the topic, that there is a societal stigma about teenage pregnancy but no similar outrage about the incredible rate of un-investigated and unpunished sexual violence against minors. I think that there is an urgent need to address this pertinent issue among young girls and particularly among boys and men, so that instead of it being a subject associated with shame and stigma, directed especially toward women, it becomes something that we can publicly talk about and, by exposing it, to encourage communities to enter into dialogue and find ways to bring about positive change.