Teenage pregnancies have existed in Uganda for several decades.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics ( UBOS 2018), almost a quarter (one in four, or 25%) of Ugandan women aged 15–19 have given birth or are pregnant with their first child by 18. Although the legal age of consent to marriage in Uganda is set at 18 years, getting married formally and informally before this age is a common practice in the country. Child marriage is not only a human rights violation but also contributes significantly to teenage pregnancy and poor maternal health for the affected child mothers.
Could there be a link between teenage pregnancies and unfavorable school policies? On my way home, I always see several female students, as young as 13 years old, trekking home as late as 9 p.m. on the streets of Kampala. Add this risk to the fact that most roads, streets, and neighborhoods in Kampala are badly it. What risks do these young girls encounter and have to evade on their way home? Not only are they faced with the risks of rape and defilement, but they also face enticements from men who seek to take advantage of these young girls. The above statistics are definitely alarming, especially in urban areas where there are increasing cases of defilement and rape. According to research done by UNFPA-UNICEF in 2019, the Buganda region alone, where Kampala city belongs, registered the highest number of teenage pregnancies (31,690), followed by the Busoga region at 12,740.
Looking at the above figures and the accompanying schoolchildren makes me wonder if these young students are not contributing to the above statistics. We need to get to the root of the matter and find out: Is it the fault of the school? Could it be that they release these students late and demand that they report to school early? Could it be that early morning preps at school force students to walk to school before daybreak? Is it careless parents who don’t take time to find out how their children commute from home to school and the risks they may encounter? Perhaps they can’t even afford the daily transport on top of other school demands! Is it an issue of the indiscipline of these children who use their transport money for other things and end up taking the risky option of walking at dangerous hours?
Without a doubt, the government should lead relevant agencies in using strategic approaches and careful planning to address a complex issue like teenage pregnancy. However, as parents and private citizens, we have a crucial role to play in curbing this vice.
As a society, we must urgently address the alarming increase in teenage pregnancies and the disturbing prevalence of defilement cases among school-going girls by playing our role as nurturers of these young girls. As parents, we need to take responsibility for finding out what is really going on in the lives of our children. If it means doing the drop-offs and pickups to and from school, it’s a small sacrifice compared to the risks of them walking unaccompanied to school. More people are investing in the education sector by setting up schools in almost every neighborhood. Scout for nearby schools instead of your children having to take longer distances from home.
If it’s an issue of delayed release of students from school, then the burden cannot solely be placed on the students or their families; the responsibility lies with the educational institutions and policymakers. Schools have to consider the plight of those young girls and boys who have to commute long distances, walking several kilometres, often alone, in the dark. The late release times, coupled with early morning classes, further exacerbate the risks these students face. By 5:30 am, you meet an unaccompanied girl walking to school, probably because she will be disciplined for arriving late for morning prep.
Imagine a young child trekking for hours, with exhaustion and vulnerability as constant companions. It’s a reality that must not be ignored any longer. If need be, let the concerned authorities overhaul school policies, particularly concerning class extensions and late release times. Schools should prioritise the safety and transportation of their students over the academic competition that has taken over most schools. Implementing measures such as providing safe transportation options, adjusting class schedules, and ensuring well-lit pathways can significantly mitigate the risks faced by these vulnerable young individuals.
Again, as earlier mentioned, teenage pregnancy is a much more complex issue that needs research, collaboration efforts, and more strategic remedies. At the same time, every effort counts. Any solution that leads to a girl child having a safe community and a peaceful learning environment should be acted on.
Every girl child deserves to be empowered with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive as a youth and a young woman. Teenage pregnancy not only derails the future of the young mother but also the child that gets to be born in such unfortunate circumstances. Policymakers should ensure that schools have conducive policies not only for the student while at school but also in their transit to and from school. The school management should work hand in hand with the parents to make sure that students have safe and secure means of transport.