Expectant,  parenting teens deserve a voice

Doris Kakuru

What you need to know:

  • Catrina (not real name, aged 14) shared her narrative with one of the authors of this article. She narrates that last year in October 2021, she went to collect Shs500 from one of the family business debtors who defiled her. Out of fear of what her family and community would say, she kept this horror to herself. She experienced emotional trauma and struggled to independently nurse the wounds she sustained during the ordeal. She only got to know that she had conceived after three months.

As cases of teenage pregnancy rise in Uganda, are we carefully listening to the voice of young people? The media has actively engaged on issues of adolescent/young motherhood more keenly in the recent past, and this topic remains hotly debated and contested. We pose some pertinent questions notably,

•       Who is responsible for the increasing rates of pregnancy among girls below 18?

•       Which actions have been taken to stop the surge?

•       Who has taken actions (if at all) and who was consulted to make decisions before arriving at such actions?

•       How have we as different stakeholders in policy, academia, research, media, programme implementation, and development partners paid attention to the voice of young people especially the expectant and parenting adolescents?

Catrina (not real name, aged 14) shared her narrative with one of the authors of this article. She narrates that last year in October 2021, she went to collect Shs500 from one of the family business debtors who defiled her. Out of fear of what her family and community would say, she kept this horror to herself. She experienced emotional trauma and struggled to independently nurse the wounds she sustained during the ordeal. She only got to know that she had conceived after three months.

“People talked whatever they felt like talking about me. They said that I was a spoilt and immoral girl. I had taken myself to the home of that man, so I wanted and deserved what had happened to me. The man even threatened to kill me and that is the reason I came to Kampala where people do not know my story”.

The dominant rhetoric about pregnancy during adolescence is a shift of the blame to the girls who become pregnant. This partly explains the contestations around the revised guidelines for the prevention and management of pregnancy among girls in school settings in Uganda (2020). The re-opening of schools on January 10 triggered a heated debate on whether girls who were pregnant or mothers should or should not return to school. Bishop James Ssebagala of the church of Uganda was quoted as having said that “it is morally not upright to allow victims to sit in class with other children”

The cover story of the Independent (January 21st 2022) questions whether by allowing expectant and parenting adolescents to return to school, the Ministry of Education is not aborting morals to please donors

Such sentiments reveal that our society continues to uphold certain expectations of girls and girlhood, most of which not only perpetuate the stigma that harms young people in numerous ways but also constitute a denial of their rights. Societal expectations ignore the difficulties expectant and parenting adolescents such as Catrina endure. Some young people experience economic hardships which were exacerbated by the loss of family income during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our interactions with expectant and parenting adolescents have shown that during the Covid-19 school closure, some parents stopped providing mandatory school requirements such as menstrual hygiene products. Some girls from low-income households engaged in sexual relationships in exchange for money to meet such basic needs. This is compounded by young people’s inadequate access to information around issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights.  According to Uganda’s penal code act, engaging in any sexual relations with people below 18 years is criminal. Although the government has a rich child protection policy framework, these policies are based on decisions of ‘expert’ adults while invisibilizing young people who form the majority of the national population.

Expectant and parenting adolescents, therefore, continue to be marginalized in policies, programmes, and praxis, as well as in scholarly research and literature. It is against this backdrop that a project, titled Centering Marginal Voices: Building Research and Advocacy Skills for Young Mothers to Negotiate for their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights’ (CMV) was conceived.

The CMV project aims to center the voices of expectant and parenting adolescents in understanding their experiences and in advocating for desired changes in policy and practice. Through this project, we are calling for a constituency of scholars, policy actors, development partners, academia, media, and other civil society to be intentional and listen carefully to the needs and realities of young people.

  Dr Doris Kakuru is an associate professor in child and youth care at the University of Victoria & Annah Kamusiime is the programs director at Nascent Research and Development Organisation.

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