Jane’s uncle, a senior police detective whose identity we cannot reveal for legal reasons, picked the victim from her grandmother’s home to help him with house chores barely after his wife who is a police officer was transferred to Kampala.
“Before we went home, he took me to Mzuri Bar, in Kamuli town. He said he was going to buy our supper. He left me in the car and went to the bar. Later, he came back with a glass of soda and told me to drink it. It smelt like alcohol, and I told him so. He said it was a new soda on the market. After I drank the soda, I lost consciousness. When I woke up the next morning, I had been defiled. He told me not to tell anyone what had transpired because I might jeopardise his job and his marriage,” Jane narrates.
She is now five months pregnant. In a travesty of justice, her uncle, a law enforcement officer who is supposed to be part of the law enforcement system’s vanguard attuned to the juridical probe meant to gather cogent evidence that can lead to a conviction instead is accused of using his high-profile position to block the investigation.
“He called my grandmother and told her that we should have a family meeting to resolve the issue. After the meeting, they did not come up with a solution and they decided that I should bathe in herbs. If it were true that my uncle had defiled me, then the herbs would summon the spirits to kill him. If I had lied, then the spirits would kill me. I just walked away,” Jane says.
Jane’s father and uncle did not receive any help from Kamuli Police Station. They then travelled to Kampala and recorded a case at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the Uganda Police Professional Standards Unit. However, these offices are yet to respond.
Instead, Michael Kasadha, the Busoga North Regional Police spokesperson, says the police are going to arrest Jane’s father, who is the complainant.
“We investigated the suspect and he was given police bond. At this point, it is now the complainant failing us because he complained to Kampala against everyone here, including the Regional Police Commander. The girl should be brought back for examination and scanning, which the complainant has not complied with. Now, a decision has been made to arrest these people [Jane’s father and uncle],” he says.
Kamuli, an impoverished sugar-cane growing belt in the Busoga sub-region, was ranked fourth among districts with the highest prevalence of teenage pregnancies behind Wakiso, Kampala and Kasese. Statistics from the district health office show that in the 2020/2021 Financial Year, a total of 6,523 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 attended their first antenatal visit. From July 2022 to March 2023, a total of 4,493 girls attended their first antenatal visit.
A number of societal and patriarchal biases are associated with the prevalence of teenage pregnancies across the country.
Dr James Waako, the district health officer for Kamuli, says the biggest driver is cultural norms, where the transition from childhood to adulthood includes marriage and giving birth.
“In some communities, if a girl reaches a certain age, and her peers are already married, she will be compelled to find a husband. Her parents may say she is in school but her body shape has changed. If they don’t have the money to cater for her basic needs, they will trade her off for money,” he says.
Irene, a 16-year-old girl in Mayuge district is eight months pregnant. She dropped out of school three years ago due to lack of school fees. Last year, she began dating an itinerant worker. However, when Irene conceived, her boyfriend abandoned her. It was only then that she realised he had concealed his identity and name. He also switched off his mobile number and disappeared.
“He seduced me with money and promised to marry me. I fell in love with him. But, now, he has abandoned me. My parents told me to abort the pregnancy because I know nothing about the man. However, I want to give birth to this baby because the midwife told me I could die while attempting to abort the baby,” she says.
Irene’s parents suspect that her boyfriend infected her with HIV. However, Irene denies this, although she admits that she contracted a sexually transmitted infection (STI) she does not disclose.
“The medical workers performed some tests after I told them I wanted to abort the pregnancy. They told me I had diabetes and an STI. The diabetes is hereditary but that man infected me with the STI. I am now on medication,” she says.
Several policy documents are indicative of the nexus between poverty, teenage pregnancies and exposure to risky sexual behaviour, because a number of rural families are unable to keep girls in school. According to the Uganda Health Demographic Survey, 2016, 35 percent of girls aged 15 and 19 years with no education have already had a baby, compared to 11 percent of girls who have more than secondary education.
“The poverty index is very high in our region. Taxi drivers, boda boda riders, and sugarcane outgrowers are getting money on a daily basis. The outgrowers ferry labourers into the region and pay them to work in their gardens. These people spend that money in the communities where they live. Some of them end up engaging these adolescent girls,” Dr Waako says.
He adds that poor townships, which have sprouted across urban centres, increase the vulnerability of girls.
“Large families – parents and children – are residing in one room. So, when the parents begin engaging in the social aspects of life at night, the children are listening and some can see what is happening. Eventually, they will want to experiment with what they have seen. When someone with money entices them, they will fall prey. We try to engage these families in community dialogues, but the issue is, can you construct a bigger house for them, anyway?” he says.
While the coronavirus, which barrelled across the country in March 2020, necessitating closure of schools for nearly two years, compounded the problem, for long spells, Uganda has had one of the highest teenage pregnancy incidences in sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, the country ranks 16th among countries with the highest rates of child marriages and teenage pregnancies.
A 2020 survey by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) on violence revealed that over the last 45 years, more than half of the girls have experienced childhood sexual abuse, which may also explain the unchanging level of teenage pregnancy in the country.
The inefficiencies and complicity in solving sex-related crimes is the main institutional driver of teenage pregnancy. Kasadha says cases of defilement are the highest reported criminal cases in the region.
“So far this year, we have recorded 207 cases of defilement, but we believe there are many more than that number which have not been reported to the police. Of the 207 cases, we have only taken 56 to court. Last year, 470 cases of defilement were reported in the entire region. Out of these, 127 were taken to court and by the end of last year we had only secured 20 convictions,” he says.
Angela Nakafeero, the commissioner of gender and women affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD), says within a span of four years, sexual violence has increased by 14 percent.
Photo combo: he executive director of Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) Fatia Kiyange (L) and the commissioner for maternal and child health at the Ministry of Health Dr Jessica Nsungwa (R)
“Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) conducted a national survey on violence against women and girls in Uganda. One of the key findings is the fact that sexual violence increased from 22 percent in 2016 to 36 percent in 2020. That is a wake-up call because it indicates that every year, sexual violence at a national level is increasing by over three percent. It was even worse during the Covid-19 pandemic,” she says.
“We have people who take long to report to police [cases of defilement]. Sometimes they delay because they are trying to negotiate with the suspect for financial gain, and when they fail to agree on the money, they come and report a case. To them, defilement of their children is a financial advantage. When we tell them that the police will follow the legal procedure, they get disappointed and disappear, leaving the case to hang in balance,” Kasadha says.
Kasadha says that lack of economic empowerment of rural women is a challenge.
“Look at a situation where a woman depends on the husband as the breadwinner, and it is the husband who had defiled her daughter. This woman will fear to report the case to police because she is bringing nothing to the table. Such a case, even when reported, will fail to take off,” he says.
16-year-old Olivia lives on the outskirts of Kampala City. She has a ten-months’-old baby. One day, as she was returning home from school, a boda boda rider defiled her.
“He stopped besides me as I was walking home and offered to give me a lift. I accepted. However, instead of taking me towards my home, he drove to his home. I had never been to that area before. He told me to wait outside while he fetched something from inside his house. I waited until 7pm and when I entered his house to remind him to take me home, he overpowered me and defiled me,” Olivia says.
Quite young, she was only able to deliver by Caesarean section.
“The clinic asked for Shs300,000 to perform the surgery but we only had Shs200,000. Ten months since I gave birth, we still have a balance of Shs100,000. We wanted to report to the police but members of my father’s clan discouraged us, saying the crime had already been committed and there is no going back,” Olivia says.
A 2021 UNICEF report states that teenage pregnancy is responsible for 18 percent of the annual births in Uganda. Furthermore, teenage pregnancy contributes to 20 percent of the infant deaths and 28 percent of the maternal deaths.
Nakafeero says limited access to sexual reproductive health information and services by adolescents is a major factor contributing to unwanted pregnancy.
“We need to educate our young people about sexuality because they are encountering so many changes in their bodies. It is important that age-appropriate and culturally sensitive sexuality education is rolled out in this country. So, whoever is campaigning against sexuality education for our young people is doing a disservice to them, especially in the context of high levels of sexual violence in this country,” she says.
The decision to allow sexually active teenagers to access and use contraceptives is controversial, with conservative sections of the public including the clergy arguing that this will give girls the green light to engage in premarital sex.
Dr Jessica Nsungwa, the commissioner for maternal and child health at the Ministry of Health, says Uganda is following a restrictive policy when it comes to contraceptives. This is despite the fact that abstinence has been proven to be ineffectual in fighting teenage pregnancy.
“Our main policy is really abstinence. However, there are some situations where a teenager is in a very high-risk environment, for example working late hours in a bar. Some of them are prostitutes. Especially for those girls who have given birth before; chance of them becoming pregnant again are very high. So, we handle these on a case-by-case scenario,” she says.
The government has instituted a number of national legal and policy frameworks to end teenage pregnancy and child marriage, and recently, the National Strategy to Curb Child
Marriages and Teenage Pregnancies 2022/23 – 2026/27 was launched.
Teenage pregnancy carries huge implications on the social and economic development of the country and may hinder efforts to achieve national development goals and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“The amount of money government loses both in terms of health and education costs; the last figure I heard about was more than $150 million (Shs554.1b) a year. That is an estimation, which is actually a tremendous cost if you look at our internally generated revenue,” Dr Nsungwa says.
According to the Ministry of Education and Sports, teenage pregnancy also accounts for 22.3 percent of school dropouts among girls aged between 14 to 18 years. In December 2020, the Education ministry issued guidelines to the effect that schools should readmit teenage mothers after they have given birth.
Jane wants to go back to school because her dream is to become a nurse. However, Irene and Olivier do not want to continue with their education.
“I want someone to help me with capital to start a business of frying chips by the roadside. It is a business I have done before and I know the money I make can help me look after my baby. Alternatively, someone can hire me to work for them,” Irene says.
Olivia wants to go for skills training, if she can find the funds, to become a hairdresser or a tailor.
Despite the laws and policies in place, the vice of teenage pregnancy seems to be growing. Fatia Kiyange, the executive director of Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) says the government needs to consciously implement these laws and policies.
“The important question is why these policies and strategies that should help us end teenage pregnancy are not being implemented. Firstly, it is because many of them are being contested despite being approved for a good cause. We need to get our religious and cultural leaders to appreciate the realities of Uganda. While we might categorise teenage pregnancy as an immorality issue, we need to be thinking about what is it going to cost us ten or twenty years down the road,” she says.
Dr Waako says a multi-sectorial approach is needed to bring down teenage pregnancy rates.
“We need not bury our heads in the sand because this is one of the biggest problems in the country. Poverty levels are still high, so we are going to have a generation of people who are uneducated, poor and dependent on the few tax payers to ensure that they get drugs in the health centres. For how many years are we going to go on like this?” he asks.
Not only will ending teenage pregnancy and child marriage reduce the country’s annual population growth rate, but it could also lead to more welfare benefits for citizens to the tune of 2.4 billion dollars, in terms of purchasing power, by 2030.
Source: Daily Monitor