By Joseph Waninda
trueLast week, Uganda joined the rest of the world to commemorate World Population Day under the theme; "Invest in Teenage Pregnancy: Let Girls be Girls." The day is celebrated every July 11 to raise awareness on global population matters.
In Uganda, as in many parts of the world, adolescents and young people’s sexual and reproductive health is a serious issue that demands urgent attention.
According to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) 2011, about 14% of teenage girls and 16% of teenage boys had their first sexual encounter before the age of 15 while 57% of teenage girls had their first encounter before the age of 18. Young people begin sex early and yet only 11% of teenagers aged 15 to 19 years use family planning methods resulting in unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion.
The UDHS further notes that 26.4% of girls aged between 15 and 19 had begun bearing children. And one in every four teenage girls between 15 and 19 was found pregnant.
Early marriage, early initiation of sex and lack of information, are the leading drivers of adolescent pregnancy.
The Population Secretariat indicates that of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually, 25% of these are teenage pregnancies. The over 300,000 teenagers who get pregnant account for the bulk of unwanted pregnancies, which end up in unintended births, abortion or even death. Deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.
In Uganda, every year, 6,000 women die due to pregnancy related complications and of these, about 40% are among young women aged 15 to 24. Complications of pregnancy such as obstructed labour and fistula (leakage of urine or faeces from the private parts) are five times higher among young women below 18 than those over 18.
The above statistics call for an urgent need to invest in the reproductive health needs of young people because of the many benefits it has both at an individual level and to the nation.
Investing in young people and their sexual and reproductive health can help them attain the skills they need to get employment, maximise their wealth and contribute to the development of the country.
When a girl child is educated and given correct and accurate information on reproductive health, she is in a better position to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Avoiding adolescent pregnancy has several benefits among which are good health prospects because adolescent pregnancies and early deliveries often involve complications. Similarly, if young girls do not get pregnant they are able to continue with school and participate in the labour force when they grow up thus earn income for their families and society.
Investing in the reproductive health of young people also means reduced sexually transmitted infections, lower risk of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.
On the other hand, failure to respond to the education and health needs of young people who make up a big part of Uganda’s population will further increase poverty. Children born to young parents are more likely to be raised with less access to regular health care and education since most young people are not involved in any gainful economic activities.
To promote the health of young people, therefore, the Government and policymakers should involve young people in decision making, planning and programme implementation. Young people have the zeal, knowledge, and the numbers to advocate strongly for their reproductive health needs. With proper guidance, young boys and girls can be effective in providing information about how best to improve their health, the challenges they face, where they can be found, what services they need the most and what strategies to use to reach their peers .
There is also need to ensure that young people have access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services by establishing a youth wing in all private and government hospitals and health centres. Additionally, health workers should be trained to provide services that meet the needs of young people in a friendly and non-judgemental manner that respects young people’s privacy.
Outreaches, peer education, community-based distribution of condoms to ensure that young people in and out of school can be reached with information and services should be stepped up.
More importantly, there is need to provide sexuality education for young people. Young people need information and options so they can have the opportunity to make safe, responsible decisions about their health. By providing girls and boys as young as 10 with age-appropriate sexuality education, and by providing older youth with information and services to make responsible choices, we can reduce life- threatening conditions such as HIV/AIDS, unsafe abortions and deaths related to pregnancy complications.
Prioritise reproductive health needs of young people