Members of Parliament last week passed a motion calling on the government to take action protecting girls against teenage pregnancy. Specifically, the motion urged the government to “develop and enforce policies and strategies to protect girls against escalating cases of teenage pregnancy and child marriage during and after the Covid-19 pandemic”.
This is a serious matter. Leaving aside the matter of the pandemic for a moment, teenage pregnancy has long been a cause for concern in Uganda. The 2016 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), conducted by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, found that a majority of women aged 25-49 had given birth to their first child before turning 20, and that 54 per cent of 19-year-olds had began childbearing. What is perhaps most alarming in the survey, however, is that rates of teenage pregnancy had not changed over the previous 10 years, a time when Uganda saw improvements on other health indicators.
These are clear links with poverty and education: Poorer women and those with lower levels of education are more likely to bear children as teenagers than other women. And it is more common in rural areas, island districts, and in some regions such as North Central, Bukedi, Bugisu, Lango, Bunyoro and Tooro.
This has a range of effects. A Sauti za Wananchi survey by Twaweza in 2019 found that one out of three citizens has a family member who had to drop out of school after becoming pregnant, and that most of those who dropped out had neither returned to education nor found paid employment. The same survey also reports that the vast majority of citizens (87 per cent) say that girls who become pregnant while still in school should be able to continue with their schooling. It’s clear that in practice, this is not happening.
Looking at the situation during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is what the MPs’ motion specifically referred to, we can turn to data from another Sauti za Wananchi survey, this one conducted in the last three months of 2020. A large majority of citizens (79 per cent) said that the problem of teenage pregnancy had become worse during the pandemic. It may well be that MPs were reacting to media coverage of this survey.
The survey also found that citizens were worried about the effect of school closures on girls, with close to half (45 per cent) saying this was because teenage pregnancy was on the rise. It’s worth noting also that teenage pregnancy is not the only gender-related concern to have risen during the pandemic. Citizens told the same Sauti za Wananchi survey that physical, emotional and sexual violence had all become worse during the pandemic. Women are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims in such cases. In the survey, women were also more likely than men to say that things were getting worse.
Again, though these are clear signs that the situation during the pandemic is even more challenging than usual, this is not a new phenomenon. As such, while we applaud the MPs for urging the government to take action at the current time, we suggest that this should go further. Yes, let’s look at what can be done to protect teenage women against pregnancy in these unusual circumstances, but let’s also look at how to change attitudes and practices in the longer term.
Ideally, this would start with an acceptance that people – men and women, adults and teenagers – will want to have sex, and that many of them will do so. This means adopting proven strategies for promoting less risky behaviour, such as providing open and honest education in schools on sexual health and relationships, as well as increasing access to family planning even to those who are unmarried.
And while we’re at it, it would surely make sense to look at gender-based violence as well.
Ms Chemutai is the senior advocacy officer, Twaweza East Africa.