Martha* was a mathematics wiz working towards attaining a first grade when she conceived. The 15-year-old former pupil at Kabaale Primary School in Buseruka Sub-county, Hoima District, had ambitions of becoming a medical doctor.
However, every passing day, these dreams remain just that because a premarital affair she had with a fellow teenager is having far-reaching implications on her future.
She was forced out of school and the affair has cast a shadow over her career ambitions.
“I developed a relationship with a boy who impregnated me,” she says tearfully, while recounting events that forced her to drop out of school after she conceived.
When she conceived, her parents chased her from home, which forced her to seek refuge at her boyfriend’s home.
This did not stop her from pleading with her parents to forgive her, which they apparently reluctantly did.
She is among the several pupils whose future prospects are being shattered through defilement and early marriages in Hoima District.
Hoima District local government is struggling to curb the high teenage pregnancies and high school drop out rates, which are affecting the district’s education targets.
“Many girls are dropping out of school after being sexually abused, the Hoima District education officer ,Godfrey Sserwanja says.
The district’s target of retaining school-going children in school is being frustrated by some parents who are abetting early marriage, Sserwanja laments.
“It is unfortunate that some parents collude with the defilers and receive bride price to marry off under age pupils” he says.
In Bunyoro, parents receive money, domestic animals and other presents as a form of bride price.
It is not only the girls that are affected by early marriages. Peter Anguyo, 19, a resident of Kaseeta parish in Kabwooya Sub-county, claims he dropped out of primary school recently following his father’s death.
As an heir, Anguyo was pressurized by relatives to get married and thus he found it difficult to balance between caring for the family and attending school. He now earns a living as a boda boda rider and a farmer.
Hoima deputy resident district commissioner Ambrose Mwesigye concedes that the rate at which children are dropping out of school is alarming and has affected government’s Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme. UPE offers free primary education to children of school going age.
“The district security committee has resolved to intensify operations that will lead to the arrest and prosecution of people that are sexually abusing children and tempting them to drop out of school,” Mwesigye vowed. He said even children found in markets and video halls during school hours will be arrested since those are common avenues where children are lured into sex.
Teenage pregnancy is a big challenge to many districts in the mid-western region and Uganda at large.
On November 1, 2009, Fiona Bbaale, 18, a pupil at Kiryandongo Primary School developed labour pains and gave birth to a baby-girl as she was writing her social studies paper during the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE).
Bbaale was rushed to Kiryandongo Hospital to be monitored but returned in the afternoon for the English paper. She completed PLE and named her child Akingito, which means exams.
Statistics at Hoima Regional Referral Hospital show a high number of teenage mothers at the facility.
The 2014 Antenatal register reveals that out of 11,592 mothers who sought antenatal services at the hospital, 1,626 were teenagers while in 2013, out of 11,704 expectant mothers who sought medication at the antenatal unit, 1,841 were teens.
According to police reports, defilement is one of the common crimes registered at various police posts across Bunyoro sub-region.
Lydia Tumushabe, the mid-western regional police spokesperson, says the police have investigated and prosecuted the suspects in defilement cases.
However, there are fears among educationists and security officials that some cases are concealed by parents and the defilers hence the defilement victims fail to get justice.
Tumushabe says some parents have commercialised defilement cases and prefer to settle them outside legal confines.
“Parents should be careful with their children especially during holidays because that is a period when such cases (defilement and teenage pregnancies) increase,” she shares.
She advises the public not to shield defilement suspects and other suspected criminals because this destabilises security and development of their areas.
“I advise girls to avoid being deceived by men, especially boda boda cyclists, who lure them with small gifts,” Tumushabe says.
Security sources told Daily Monitor that some men deliberately target school age teenagers because they are gullible.
Some defilement victims are reportedly waylaid on their way to or from school. Others are targeted at community water sources or local grocery stores.
Catherine Byenkya, the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom’s minister for health, says she has counselled some of the girls that have been sexually abused and molested.
“They feel hurt, betrayed and traumatised. They need counselling and rehabilitation,” she said.
For those that have dropped out of school, the kingdom has partnered with government agencies and non-governmental organisations to ensure they resume studies.
“However, there is a challenge since many hesitate to go back to school fearing stigma,” she added.
In a bid to curb teenage pregnancies and its related problems, the kingdom does not issue marriage certificates to unions where one party is below 18 years.
She adds that Bunyoro Kitara kingdom has also set aside honourary certificates to girls who get married when they are older and are virgins.
Sadly, these certificates are yet to be claimed by any family.
The grim reality
According to figures from Uganda Demographic Health Survey (UDHS) 2011, 24 per cent of female teenagers are either pregnant or have given birth already.
The survey indicated that as early as 15 years, about 15 per cent of women of 20-29 years were married. Another 49 per cent were married at the age of 18.
A report by Ministry of Health at the November 2013 national symposium on teenage pregnancies highlights the fact that teenage pregnancies in Uganda is one of the highest in East and southern Africa.
According to the report, each year, out of the 1,000 female adolescents, 135 are mothers.
The report revealed that while the Adolescent Health Policy explicitly states that pregnant adolescent girls should be re-admitted to school after they have delivered, Uganda’s Education Policy is silent about it.
“…Pregnant adolescents are often denied a chance to continue with their education. Indeed in districts where teenage pregnancy rates are well above 50 per cent, school dropout rates have been reported to be as high as 84 per cent,” the report reads in part.
Bernadette Plan, the Hoima District secretary of community development, says the district has intensified community sensitisation campaigns in communities about dangers of teenage pregnancies and the importance of girl child education.
The 2011 UDHS shows that only 20 per cent of teenagers had some secondary education, 56.7 per cent had some primary education, 16.9 per cent completed primary education and 5 per cent had no education at all.
Catherine Ntabadde Makumbi, the senior communications specialist United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef Uganda), says a recent survey has showed that engaging in early sex, early marriages as well as teenage pregnancies are the blockages to girls’ concentration, performance and completion of different levels of education.
“We are working with the Ministry of Education and Sports to establish the gravity of the problem and get to its root,” she said.
The ministry is conducting study on teenage pregnancy in more than 20 districts and how it is affecting the girl child.
According to Makumbi, Unicef has been advocating pregnant girls to be allowed to sit for exams and re-enrolment after delivery.
“There are good prospects from government on this and they are listening to the issues. Even though there is no policy yet but at least pregnant girls can sit for their exams or continue with their education after giving birth” Makumbi said.
There is increasing concern that if nothing is done to check the trend; it may threaten the peace and stability of the country.
Many children born of teenage mothers end up on the wrong side of the law because of lack of proper mentoring and education.
According to the state of the World Population Report, 2013, every day, 20,000 girls below age 18 give birth in developing countries.
Girls under the years of 15 account for two million of the annual 7.3 million new adolescent mothers. If the current trends continue, the number of births to girls under 15 could rise to three million by 2030.
Another report published by United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa), shows that in every region of the world, impoverished, poorly educated and rural girls are more likely to become pregnant than their wealthier, urban, and more educated counterparts.
About 70,000 adolescents in developing countries die annually of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
The report shows that girls who remain in school are less likely to become pregnant.
It states that tackling unintended pregnancy among adolescents requires holistic approaches. “Because the challenges are great and complex, no single sector or organisation can singlehandedly deal with them. Only by working in partnerships, across sectors, and in collaboration with adolescents themselves, can constraints on their progress be removed,” the report reads in part.