Monday, 26 July 2010 19:20
When Lucy Adikinyi, a pupil at Rubongi Primary School, in Tororo, got pregnant at 14, shortly before she sat for her primary leaving exams, it was a great shock to her family.
But unlike the usual script where she would have been banished from both her home and school, Adikinyi’s family provided her the best possible medical, financial, social and moral support. She continued attending classes until she gave birth just after the final exams, mainly, because as she says, even the teachers were supportive.
They encouraged other pupils not to ridicule her but encourage and support her. She continued to study, do house work and play like any normal child. She had a beautiful baby boy, nursed him for a year and then went back to school. She is now in senior four at Madera Girls’ School in Soroti, and looks forward to one day becoming a lawyer.
Like many girls, Adikinyi’s adolescent life was rife with half truths and ignorance. Sex is taboo among most cultures in Uganda, and no one ever took the time to talk to her about safe sex.
“I told him to use a condom, but he insisted on withdrawal. He said it would be safe. But was it wasn’t, so I got pregnant,” Adikinyi explains.
Why didn’t she use emergency contraceptives? “I did not know those existed. You mean there is a way to avoid pregnancy even after you have had sex?”
Adikinyi sometimes regrets, saying things might have been different, had she had more knowledge and support. But overall, her story is not the worst case scenario, thanks to her family and community.
Yet for most girls in Adikinyi’s position, the reality is quite different. It begins with alienation, back lash and ends in dropping out of school, which usually translates into, among other things, bleak economic future prospects. Pregnant students are not only outcasts abandoned by their families but are also banned from attending school.
A recent ActionAid report indicates that the national primary school dropout rates for girls in Uganda is at 20% annually and about four times more in some districts in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Here, early marriages and teenage pregnancies are well above 50% compared to the national average of 25%. In districts like Kumi, the school drop-out rate for girls stands at 84% annually compared to the national rate of 20%, while early marriages and pregnancies in the district are over 60% compared to the national average of 25%.
The gender focal point officer at the ministry of Education and Sports, Rita Kyeyune, decries the negative forces that force the girls to drop out of school.
“Whereas it’s true that pregnancies and early marriages of teenage girls have contributed to dropout and failure to complete the primary and secondary education cycles, the society’s negative reaction stigmatizes and disempowers the girls concerned.
“They become child mothers and fail to return and complete their education,“ she says.
Denying such girls education, Kyeyune notes, is a double punishment since many get pregnant under circumstances out of their control, usually after being raped or seduced by men old enough to be their parents.
She also attributes the scenario to the existing inequality between women and men in Uganda’s education sector, but notes that there’s some progress at eliminating the gender disparity.
“The ministry will not sit back but continue with its effort to ensure that by 2015, all children, especially females and children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities have access to and completely free and compulsory education of good quality.”
A study, ‘Consequences of child marriage in Africa,’ by Nawal M. Nour, shows that over 50% of the girls in Uganda get married before 18, while a United Nations Population Fund State of World Population Report, 2006, rated Uganda with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in sub-saharan Africa. According to the report, child bearing and sexual activities start as early as 14 and by 15, 30% of females have had sexual intercourse. By 18, the proportion has increased to 72%.
The situation is perpetrated by extreme poverty that makes parents marry off their pregnant daughters in exchange for bride price. In addition, when a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she is deemed a disgrace to her family and society, and the only way to “salvage” her reputation is to leave school and get married.
Yet an educated woman remains pivotal to the wellbeing of not only her family but the entire nation. The high fertility rate in the country is partly attributed to low levels of education, low incomes and social status, early marriages, low contraceptive use and religious and cultural beliefs.
Schools, expected to offer safe sex education are also at cross roads. The head teacher at Mutundwe Progressive School, Herman Nsubuga, says most teachers are stuck between the obvious need for sex education and safe sex practices for teenagers, and cultural and religious notions. They leave these mucky waters to the parents, instead of risking being labeled immoral and “spoiling” the children. On the other hand, parents hardly offer any help, with some pretending that their teenage daughters are not sexually active.
“Some parents have urged us to call a spade a spade by encouraging pupils to use condoms if they can not abstain from sex.
“But sincerely how do you expect us to tell these underage pupils to use condoms? Why can’t the parents do it themselves, what are they fearing?” a teacher asked.
In the end, the children are left with no guidance.