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Teenage pregnancies a major issue in Uganda

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Picture: Jennifer Bruce – Teenage pregnancies in Uganda, currently the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, have turned out to be a major health, social and economic issue, the writer says.

By Tobbias Jolly Owiny

In December, Uganda launched a campaign around the prevention of teenage pregnancy and child marriages dubbed “Protect the girl, Save the Nation” spearheaded by the First Lady and Minister of Education Janet Museveni, and Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja.

The campaign calls on all the stakeholders and communities to take action to protect the girl child and to empower them with information, knowledge and skills to enable them to make informed decisions and choices to delay childbearing and build their potential.

The intervention came against the backdrop that With the teenage pregnancies in Uganda, currently the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, turned out to be a major health, social and economic issue in Uganda. With th national prevalence rate standing at 25 percent, in the Teso subregion, for example, teenage pregnancy rates are much higher at an average of 31percent.

During the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, about 67,000 teenagers in Teso got pregnant. One in every three girls in the Teso sub-region gives birth before the age of 19 (according to the Uganda National Bureau of Statistics). Uganda has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in sub-Saharan Africa with over 25 percent of pregnancies among teenagers registered every year.

The government faults the trend on immense sexual reproductive health problems. Enormous challenges continue to be faced by teenage girls in the country. Their early sexual engagement emanates from disrupted livelihood sources for families, limited access to adolescent sexual reproductive health information, and increased exposure to violence among others.

In the city of Gulu, exposure to transactional sexual relationships, influence by peers, inadequate information on sexual reproductive rights from parents, teachers, and health workers, and illegal use of contraceptives, have encouraged the vice. Currently, Uganda faces a dire situation that needs to be dealt with head-on, a situation that may reverse gains registered over the years in girls’ education and education as a whole.

Nationally, the problem is heightened by the increased poverty and vulnerability among communities that force young girls to relegate themselves to “self-survival” modes (teen prostitution) while on one end, families see them as assets by marrying them off to help mitigate family financial burdens.

While teenage pregnancy prevalence in Africa stands at 18.8 percent, of this, 19.3 percent is recorded to occur in sub-Saharan Africa and 21.5 percent in eastern Africa. The prevalence of adolescent pregnancy in eastern Africa ranges from 18 percent to 29 percent and around half of these pregnancies are unintended.

Like its neighbours; Kenya, DRC and South Sudan, and other subSaharan African nations, pregnancy-related complications have been recorded as major causes of death not only for teenage girls but also for young women. The trend was on record, orchestrated by social factors including limited or a lack of supervision by parents, early initiation to sexual activities, and pressure from families to marry early.

Although teenage pregnancies characteristically occur in poor populations, understanding its predictors ideally facilitates the development of effective social policies such as family planning and comprehensive sex education, among others in subSaharan Africa. Most sub-Saharan African states have policies designed to delay and protect young women from becoming pregnant during adolescence.

For example, while Uganda has the National Strategy on Ending Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy (NSCM&TP), Kenya has the National Health Policy, the National Adolescent Health Policy, and the National Policy on Young People and HIV/Aids. However, sadly, these policies are hardly serving the purpose of fostering a supportive environment to encourage adolescent reproductive health since adherence to the protocols they offer remains a challenge, offering much more gaps than solutions.

Policies rolled out to prevent and mitigate the effects of teenage pregnancies among the youth are only limited to urban settings, leaving the majority of vulnerable teenagers at the mercy of predators in rural areas. Unless critical and deliberate decisions are taken to implement such policies, pregnancies among teenagers will continue to water down efforts toward the national development agenda of the sub-Saharan countries. There is a big need for governments and their partners (civil society) to make obligatory investments toward the provision of sanitary utilities (pads) to teenage girls, and to strengthen the delivery of age-appropriate sexual reproductive health information.

It also includes the provision of strategic investments in the continuing curriculum reforms and empowerment programmes targeting parents, including innovations to keep the adolescents occupied.

Owiny is a journalist at Monitor Publications Limited (NMG) in Uganda and Bureau Chief in the Acholi region.