“I did not know I was pregnant,” said Maureen, “but when I was four months pregnant I revealed to my mother the way I was feeling in my body."
At the age of 12, Maureen*, who lives in western Uganda was made pregnant by a 27-year-old boda boda (taxi motorcyclist) and is now mother to a one-month-old baby.
“I did not know I was pregnant,” said Maureen, who lives in Kasese district, “but when I was four months pregnant I revealed to my mother the way I was feeling in my body.
“My mother took me to a nearby clinic for a check up and treatment and the nurse disclosed to her that I was four months pregnant. She informed my father and they became very angry with me, they kept pushing for abortion and I cried every day because of the way my family was putting pressure on me.”
Every Sunday in Maureen’s village a community organisation holds meetings on sexual health, including HIV and AIDS, as well as teenage pregnancies and a way forward that encourages young girls to go back to school after giving birth.
Maureen said: “At a community meeting organised by Kasese Girl Child Education Initiative and the girls’ education movement, it was suggested to my parents that I should go back to school.”
Following this meeting, Maureen’s parents relented and decided to support Maureen in having the baby and returning to school.
Maureen is now a primary six student at Kyabarungila primary school in Kasese District. She is among 24 per cent of teenage girls in sub-Saharan Africa who get pregnant before the age of 19; the statistics are even worse when it comes to Uganda. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, a 2012 demographic survey found one in every four teenage girls between 15 and 19 was pregnant.
The executive director of the Community Health Alliance Uganda (CHAU), Edith Mukisa, helps oversee the Link Up programme in Uganda, which targets the sexual and reproductive health needs of young people. She said: “The issue of girls giving birth at an early age is one focus of Link up and we are working to increase young people’s understanding of sexual health as well as advocating for parents to take responsibility for talking about sex education at home with their children.”
The three-year Link Up programme is designed to reduce HIV transmission rates among young people, as well as unintended pregnancies and maternal deaths. It is particularly targeting young people living with or most at risk of HIV aged between 10-24 in 11 districts of Uganda.
Dr Margaret Elang, Link Up assistant manager at CHAU believes that culture and tradition still do not support children. “If a girl starts having menstrual periods around 9-10 years,” she said, “she stops being a child, she is now a woman, and when she has a child even if she is only 13 years old, she is considered a woman. Some cultures do not allow a girl to drop blood in their homes so they marry her off immediately at the first signs of puberty. A girl who becomes pregnant while still in her father’s home is referred to as a curse.”
According to Dr Elang, sex education has not been given attention in schools while parents are afraid to talk about sex and reproductive health. There is also a link between poverty and early pregnancies especially in rural poor families where the pregnancy rate for adolescents stands at 41 per cent compared to 17 per cent for adolescents from wealthier families (Uganda Bureau of Statistics).
According to a UNFPA survey carried out in October 2013, Kasese district in the central region is said to be the district with the highest number of underage teenage mothers in Uganda with nearly one in every three households recording a teenage pregnancy.
The rate of school drop outs due to adolescent pregnancy is a threat to the development of Kasese district. Yet with the right support some girls do manage to finish their education after giving birth.
Maureen has now gone back to school to fulfil her dreams. She said: “I learnt a lesson because I experienced pain I’d never felt before while giving birth. I’ve promised to obey and listen to my parents and I’ve gone back to study because I want to be a doctor.”
*name changed to protect identity
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Image: School children in Uganda
© Nell Freeman for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance