Wednesday September 3 2014

We must urgently review age of consent to save our children

By Christine Abia

Last week, I visited Arua Regional Referral Hospital’s female and maternity wards. What I saw were pathetic sights of very young mothers attended to by their equally young mothers. Sick of the sight, I inquired how old the grandmother of the new born was; 30 years! And the child’s mother, 15 years. A grandmother at 30 and probably a great grandmother at 45 years…
This is disturbing but more worrying is the fact that it partly accounts for the high infant and maternal mortality in Uganda – two key Millennium Development Goals (4 and 5) which Uganda will not meet by the target period of next year. If you are a parent, take a look at your 15-year-old daughter, imagine her pregnant and about to give birth; imagine you are a peasant in rural Uganda where there is no functional healthcare!
Even in Kampala’s best hospitals and clinics, mothers have died and continue to die from pregnancy-related complications. However, the situation is worse in rural areas where healthcare delivery remains grossly inadequate yet child mothers – common in rural Uganda – are prone to complications during pregnancy, thus requiring professional healthcare.
Beyond the healthcare needs of these young mothers, we must end the practice of marrying off children whose bodies have not fully developed to carry pregnancies. What I witnesses in Arua Hospital are clear cases of defilement that go unreported or unprosecuted. Many families protect this crime by negotiating for dowry. This to me is more than families looking for income from a man who has abused their daughter; it is mental poverty.
The high population growth rates may partially be attributed to early marriages where women on average bear seven children. The tragic yet irrefutable truth is that Uganda is producing children it can no longer feed, (because agriculture is growing at 1.6 per cent while population growth is at 3.6 per cent according to BoU, 2013, UBOS, 2013) should worry all right-thinking Ugandans, particularly the political decision makers. The imagination that food and nutrition security is possible through market access is fluid for it is known that most rural Ugandans are net buyers of food. Besides, how many of these young people are working the small land holdings?
My next stop in Arua hospital, the Paediatric Ward, was heart breaking. Child mothers, whose babies’ heads and wrists are full of canellas, are anaemic and crying in pain. Babies with sunken eyes crying as their breath fails due to acute malnutrition or malaria. And their young mothers helpless as another 37-year-old grandmother is breastfeeding an equally unhealthy child in the corner. She has come as an attendant to her 17-year-old daughter who is hungry, with no breast milk and nursing a sick child.
Every trading centre in the countryside is plagued by youth alcoholism and the productive capacity of rural Uganda is broken. Unless we rescue our youth from the sachets (waragi) of Uganda’s ‘investors’, we are bound to pay a high price, especially when primary school dropout rates are quite high. Mbaru Primary School in Arua District, for instance, had 200 pupils in P1 but seven years later today, the class has 19 pupils in Primary Seven with only five girls!
When a baby weighing 900 grams is born to helpless parents and at six months the child is only 2 kilogrammes, at what age will such a child walk? How can this be the life our young people lead? I think we should rethink our consent age and take it to 21 years if one is to be a capable parent and more so a mother. If at more than 30 years, childcare is a challenge to many women, what stress does an 18-year-old face? No wonder, we are in an era where grandparents are on a second phase of raising children. Instead of enjoying their retirement, they are looking after grandchildren whose parents are too young as the confusion of calling a grandfather daddy continues. More annoying is when grandparents have to even pay for house helps as the adolescent parents go back to school in the cities or idle on village paths in the countryside.
For those who think the age of consent should not be raised to 21, wait until your teenage girl is pregnant and she neither remembers nor knows the name of the child’s father. I am aware of adults who abandon their parental responsibilities and younger ones who are more responsible, but the psycho-physiological development status of an 18-year-old is inadequate for marriage and its associated responsibilities. As we move to amend the Constitution, let us reflect on taking the consent age to 21 years.

Ms Abia is the Woman MP for Arua District.