My 2 cents on protecting pregnant teens from illegal transactional marriages
By Kakaire Ayub Kirunda | The sight of expectant teenagers in the Eastern Uganda district of Kibuku can easily help one make sense of the country’s challenge of teenage pregnancy currently standing at 25%. Statistics from the District Health Office show that 30% of girls between 15 and 19 years have begun child bearing. Seeing these pregnant teenagers over the last five years of our work as Makerere university in the district almost makes one think the Kibuku community has resigned to this state of affairs.
However, during our most recent sojourn, it is no longer business as usual. At a stakeholder meeting under a research project by Makerere University in partnership with the Future Health Systems Research Consortium, Research in Gender and Ethics and Kibuku Local Government that is piloting the use community score cards to improve maternal and newborn outcomes, sub county representatives raised the red flag on the burden of teenage pregnancies.
Sharing findings from the latest [4th round] scoring exercise which brings together community members and health workers, sub-county representatives informed the meeting that teenage pregnancy had joined the list of indicators now being scored to try and reduce the burden. What’s despicable is that among the leading drivers of the vice cited were the police who are mandated to enforce the law, parents who are the natural protectors of their children, and teachers who are entrusted to educate and protect young girls while in school.
In the meeting, it was alleged that some police officers are facilitating negotiations between families of teenagers found pregnant and their defilers, yet defilement is a capital offence under Section 129 of Uganda’s Penal Code Act that requires prosecution in the courts of law. Such is the seriousness of the case that upon conviction the offender faces life imprisonment.
Similarly, by parents opting to solve matters of defilement out of court and preferring to marry off their pregnant teenagers for a few pennies, they are abetting crime and robbing their children of their childhood.
In settings such as Kibuku where the key entities that would ideally be fighting teenage pregnancy are now alleged to be fuelling the problem, political and technical leadership in districts have an uphill task ahead.
But all hope is not lost. With the community score card project in Kibuku demonstrating that pertinent issues can be brought to the attention of key stakeholders, now that the conversation on the burden of teenage pregnancy is gaining momentum is already a positive step in the right direction which other districts need to emulate.
My two cents
Now is the time to lift the veil over anonymity of elements within schools and police as well as parents that are miscarrying justice in cases where girls have been defiled. That could ease the work of structures such as the District Security Committee (DSC) which can reign in delinquent police officers and parents for abetting crime by having them prosecuted.
The Kibuku DSC with the help of the Health Department can make use of the free weekly airtime on local radio that is extended to the office of the Resident District Commissioner to sensitise parents who either out of ignorance or poverty find it hard to let girls acquire education to have a brighter and prosperous future with spill over social benefits for the parents and wider community.
Finally, we need to operationalize national and international initiatives aimed at stopping teenage pregnancy. A case in point is the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy, offering strategic guidance. Sadly, this strategy is expiring mid next year but it would be interesting to know how it has performed. None-the-less, more effort should be made to take other initiatives such as “Girls Not Brides” further down to the grassroots.
According to the World Bank, ending teenage pregnancies and child marriage now could generate $3 billion per year for Uganda by 2030. The economic benefits would come in the form of low population growth resulting an improvement in the quality of life, high education attainment, minimal mortality and child mortality related to teenage pregnancy complications, among others.
The author works with Makerere University School of Public Health