She was about 15, heavily pregnant. “Oh, pregnant at such a tender age,” says one man who was passing by her. His colleague said, in Luganda “Ettooke ttelyengera nga tto” loosely translated to mean no banana ever gets ripe unless it is ready. It was a suggestion that this girl at 15, was ready to become a mother.
Hers is not an isolated incident, but one that is common in our society. It is a reflection of people’s cultural and societal perceptions about teenage pregnancy and motherhood. Among the Banyole people of Butaleja, in eastern Uganda, a girl who is at the age where she starts to menstruate is considered an adult.As a result, she is usually married off so she does not start her periods while staying at her parents’ home.
Alarming teenage pregnancy rates
Isaac Isengyere, chairman Sagenda Local Council in Butaleja District, says the rate of teenage pregnancies in Butaleja is alarming. “You do not have to look far to understand what I am telling you,” he says. “Here, just here in my house, my daughter was 14, in Primary Six, when she got pregnant,” he says.
According to the 2011 Uganda Health Demographic Survey, one in four Ugandan girls between 15 and 19 has either had a child or is pregnant. In Butaleja District, the numbers are even higher, with 30 per cent of girls having had a baby or were pregnant between 15 and 19. “These are girls lured into sexual practices by boys who give them chapattis, mandazi, body lotions and other petty things,” says Isengyere.
Pregnant and abandoned
Sheila Nahirya, 17, a former student of Kanghalaba Secondary School in Wangale village in Himutu Sub County, is seven months pregnant. She says on Christmas Day last year, her boyfriend lured her into having sex with him, which resulted in her becoming pregnant.
“It was circumstances that led me into accepting to sleep with him,” she recounts. She was not able to convince him to have protected sex. “No, he insisted that we have it live.” The boy later, much to Nahirya’s shock, denied the pregnancy. “I was frustrated. I felt betrayed and useless. I thought of aborting the baby.”
Nahirya’s parents talked her out of abortion. She has since received psycho-social support from Himutu Health Centre III. Millicent Wiwo, the health assistant at the centre, says they are helping Nahirya cope with the situation and prepare her to give birth. She was in Senior Two. She says after giving birth, she wants to go back to school, study to become a lawyer.
“The situation is complex,” says Isengyere. “When girls stay at school hungry, any promises of food can lure them into sexual relationships. Then we have those who escape from school to go to disco halls,” he says.Isengyere recalls an incident at one of the secondary schools where girls used to escape from their dormitories between 9 and 11pm. They would be sexually abused along the way. We would hear them scream. One teacher tried to intervene by following up these girls but on three occasions the boys beat him up. The teacher has since been transferred.
Butaleja is also an area which is predominately Muslim, with a sect called the Salaaf, who believe in marrying off teenage girls. Abia Mwima, the In-charge of records at Butaleja Central Police Station, says Police receives between seven to 10 defilement cases a month. But she stresses a lot more cases occur in the communities where parents do not cooperate with the Police.
Lydia Namugere, the In-charge of the Child and Family Protection Unit at Butaleja Central Police Station says, some parents look at their daughters as wealth creation machines. “Some parents prefer dowry to education of their daughters,” she states. “They give away their teenage daughters for a fee.” The money ranges from Shs1.5m to Shs2m. Namugere says instead of cooperating with the Police to apprehend the perpetrators of teenage pregnancies, many parents instead use the Police as a bargaining power. “They tell the offender that ‘we have reported the case to Police, so if you refuse to pay, you will be arrested’.
They coerce the offender into paying the money. Then in case the Police get to know about it, the parents hide the girl and say she disappeared or that they are no longer interested in the case.” Namugere says that in circumstances like these, the Police can hardly address the matter since they do not only need cooperation from the parents, but also evidence from the girl for medical examination to prosecute the offenders.
Teenage pregnancies, Namugere says have also escalated cases of domestic violence in the district. “The man, who is often much older, would want this teenage girl to think like an adult yet she is young and knows nothing about marriage. What she probably knows is sex but even then, the sex they have is violent which causes more conflict in the home,” she says.
At the time of this interview at Butaleja Central Police Station, Namugere was handling a case of a 17-year-old girl who had been battered by her ‘husband’, whom Police had now arrested. “Like in this case,” Namugere said, “The man wanted sex. The girl refused because she was not feeling well but the man could not listen. He instead beat her up.”
Temptation to abort
Edith Mugoya, 66, a nurse at Charity Drug Shop in Butaleja Town Council, agrees. “For most parents, when their daughter gets pregnant, they say ‘we took you to school but you decided to get pregnant, now you are mature. Go to your husband. We cannot waste our money again on you.”
As a result, some girls opt to abort. Mugoya says she receives many cases of teenage girls requesting for abortion. “Some come with their boyfriends in which case it is a decision both of them have made,”explains Mugoya.
Esperance Fundira, Country Representative, United Nations Population Fund in Uganda, is optimistic the new campaign, launched in partnership with the Ministry of Health will yield results. “We have built a strong partnership at central and local government levels, and with the participation of the girls themselves and the communities, we will witness a change,” she said.