Every community globally is grappling with the stressful effects of Covid-19, but its consequences on teenage girls are devastating.
Covid-19 lockdown has not only ruined businesses and jobs but also shattered lives and careers of young girls, who have turned into mothers prematurely.
At Pakwach Health Centre IV in Pakwach District in West Nile, expectant girls aged between 15 to 17 queue up waiting for antenatal services.
Charity aged 17, a Senior One student and resident of Panymur Village in Packwach, is three months pregnant following a relationship with a boy five years older during the lockdown, which was announced in March.
Charity says the lockdown gave her a lot of free time at home and she was able to interact with her peers. However, due to peer influence, she was lured into a sexual relationship with a village boy, who was also out of school.
“He told me we shall meet during the lockdown. He started giving me gifts. I explained to him that my parents said if I spoil my future they will leave me,” she said.
With her head bowed in discomfort, she said: “He invited me to his house and I started going there. He told me he loved me. Later I missed my menstrual periods and I went to hospital for checkup where I was told I was pregnant.”
Our visit to West Nile led to an encounter with teenage mothers as young as 15 years who said they are unlikely to return to school despite the reopening of education institutions.
Another five-month pregnant girl, Susan,17, who is in Primary Five in Arua District told Daily Monitor that following closure of schools, she started seeing her boyfriend whom her parents had earlier barred her from meeting.
Suzan, who lives in one of the refugee settlements, says she had heeded to the advice but with the lockdown and the related redundancy, she continued meeting the boyfriend.
“My parents became very angry with me. They made a decision that I should stay with the boy who had impregnated me but I decided to stay home so that I deliver and hope to go back to school,” she said.
Being a refugee, Susan gets food relief from government, but she says she is forced to sell it in order to get money for basic needs.
Many other girls told Daily Monitor that they engaged in reckless sex and could not use a condom or any other form of contraceptives because they either did not know how to use them or they did not know where to get them.
According to the district health inspectorate office, of 2,451 antenatal care visits from the six sub-counties that make up Packwach District, at least 577 pregnant women were aged 15 and19 between April and June.
Dr Paul Ajal, the district health officer, said Pakwach has been grappling with the challenge of teenage pregnancies for long but the number has shot up since March.
“This problem existed even before the lockdown, but it has noticeably increased as the result of the lockdown,” Dr Ajal said.
He added: “We have come to learn that many of our children particularly girls are pregnant from the statistics collected. The girls who present to our facilities for pregnancy services, 24 per cent are below 19 years-- what we call teenage pregnancies. But we have sub-counties such as Panymur where it goes up to 40 per cent.”
Dangers of teenage pregnancies
Dr Ajal says poverty makes teenage mothers are unable to take care of their children.
“Their body is also not ready to carry a pregnancy and they usually do not deliver well. They have complications at the time of delivery. Even when they deliver, they are not able to look after these babies. These babies are exposed to illness early in life. They are also more likely to present with malnutrition,” Dr Ajal said.
He said keeping in school helps in checking teenage pregnancies.
During the lockdown, the education department in Packwach carried out a survey, which discovered that at least 500 school girls became pregnant in Wadelai Sub-county alone.
Sr Kareo Nataline, the head teacher of Packwach Girls Primary School, says idleness during the lockdown accounts for majority of the teenage pregnancies.
The girls got enough time to visit friends, markets and trading centres, where interaction with boys resulted in intimate relationships.
“Of 1,072 pupils in my school, I might lose 72. Many of them have lost interest. Most children here go to school at the age of six or eight, so they become adolescents in primary level and this brings problems. The girls feel they are beautiful, they drop out and do what they want to do,” Sr Nataline said.
Ms Florence Nakiwala, the Youth and Children’s Affairs minister, said at least 2,730 teenage girls got pregnant during the first three months in the lockdown.
Ms Nakiwala said some girls are lured into early sex by men because they lack basic needs.
“It is a result of probably lack of school, but we discovered that school is not safe either. They were getting pregnant at school and they are equally getting pregnant at home. The priorities in a home change. Once you provide a meal, you do not provide sanitary towels,” she says.
The minister urged parents to provide their daughters with basic requirements at home and also monitor their phone activities.
The situation is not different in other regions.
In Mbarara District, 1,363 teenage pregnancies were registered between January and August, according to district officials.
In a statement issued by the Minister of ICT, Ms Judith Nabakooba, on child abuse since March, some areas with the highest number of teenage pregnancies include Kamuli, Gulu, Naggalama, Kiryandongo and Jinja Road.
During the peak of the lockdown between March and July, 21,260 cases of child abuse were reported to police.
More than half of these cases involved situations of children being abused from home.
What is pushing girls into early sex?
‘Jacqueline’, a 19-year-old girl, dropped out of school in Senior One after her father refused to pay her second term school fees.
Jacqueline dropped out of school and indulged in a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old boda boda rider.
She says when she conceived, her dream to become a nurse diminished. She, however, insists that if she gets a caretaker to pay her tuition, she will pursue her dream.
Jacqueline says she was banned from home and her child’s father does not provide much.
Some parents accused police of not helping in the fight against child pregnancies. They say police do not arrest defilers and rapists.
“If you don’t have money for the police officers to investigate the case, sometimes it’s a long process, parents end up negotiating with the culprits to settle the case,” one mother said.
Viola, who became pregnant at school, attributed teenage pregnancies to peer pressure and desire for material things.
“I want to go back to school but I don’t know how I will take care of my child. Many other girls are still getting pregnant. It’s normal for a girl to get married here in Pakwach. These girls get married young and the husband has nothing,” Viola says.
“Most girls in our schools have children at home,” she added.
What should be done
Mr Charles Owekmeno, a national coordinator of Sexual Reproductive Health Alliance, said government needs to draft an adolescent health policy to provide young people packages of sexual reproductive health services.
“Right now when they go to hospitals, the health facilities are not ready to meet their needs. They are sexually active but they are not getting the services they need to keep themselves safe because there is no policy to guide that,” Mr Owekmeno said.
Dr Paul Ajal, the district health officer, said they carry out health education and community outreaches regularly but there is need for government to create new approaches to reach the communities.
Mr Philip Ronney, the branch manager for reproductive health in Arua District, said they are currently using peer to peer methods to educate the youth because they find it easy to appreciate information from fellow youth.
Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Ministry of Health spokesperson, said teenage pregnancy is a multi-sectoral fight and each sector has to play its role.