By Ali Kaviri
We are living in a fast changing world in which attitudes towards sexuality and procreation are evolving by the day, a situation in which globally 20,000 girls below the age of 18 are reported to give birth daily, according to the State of the World Population Report 2013.
Uganda is an extremely youthful nation with 48% comprising of young people less than 15 years of age. Coupled with a higher birth rate, the country has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Africa standing at 24%. Global studies estimate that about 70,000 adolescent girls continue to die from complications related to pregnancy and child birth whilst many who survive days of obstructed labour end up with complications like obstetrics fistulas.
Cited causes of teenage pregnancy in Uganda are linked to early sexual exposure for girls, forced child marriages, coerced first sexual intercourse, family situations for the adolescent girls and limited access to sexuality education and reproductive health services.
A recent study by UNFPA indicates that 49% of Ugandan girls are married off before their 18th birthday, a factor that contravenes the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda which consents marriage at the age of 18.
Other factors include inadequate life and livelihood skills especially assertive and avoidance skills, older men taking advantage of young girls, poor parenting styles and limited educative media reaching out to vulnerable communities.
Teenage pregnancy is further exacerbated by the cultural beliefs and social stigma related to teenage pregnancies in which most, if not all, schools in Uganda discontinue teenage girls from continuing with education, as soon as they establish that the girl is pregnant.
Many students also rely heavily on self-education from peers without adequate and professional guidance and counselling on sex education.
Further still, sexual and reproductive health programmes provided in some cases also tend to ignore the social, cultural and economic factors that prevent young people from making healthy decisions and that contribute to their vulnerability to poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes including exposure to HIV, sexual violence and unsafe pregnancies.
Resultantly, many adolescents end up lacking assistance in sexual decision making skills and those with limited connection to their families and schools are ensuing into increased risky sexual activities, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and even death due to maternal-related complications.
Teenage pregnancy hence has been bled by attitudes, several myths and misconceptions among teenagers as well as general complacency that surround sexuality amongst most communities in rural Uganda.
In light of this, if we are to address this hitch, there is a need to have a compressive sexual education culturally, socially and in politically acceptable ways streamlined within existing institutions such as schools, homes and churches alike.
This will begin to change the rigid mindset among adolescent gate keepers including parents, teachers, the community and religious leaders who still think sexual and reproductive information is not age appropriate for adolescents.
We also need to begin instilling in adolescents right from childhood concepts of leadership, emotional intelligence and critical thinking.
This will go a long way in empowering them in decision making processes so that they make informed and responsible life choices such as delaying sex.
Irrefutably, adolescent stage marks a critical time of development in someone’s life. It is a period of dramatic physical, cognitive, hormonal and social changes that occur in our bodies, which ultimately translates into one’s identity and personality.
Targeting them at an early stage will consequently make teenagers delay sex and child bearing as well as live healthier and productive lives to their fullest potential.
Adolescent premarital pregnancies, childbearing and teenage mortality rate is a cornerstone obstacle and a community concern and for that reason remains a major social, health, financial and economic sabotage in Uganda, which all of us must vividly fight.
The writer is a youth leader