By Patrick Odongo Lango
Reports from the Lango subregion and elsewhere in the country are pointing to an epidemic of teenage pregnancies. Girls as young as 13 years are being defiled and becoming premature child mothers. This is a national shame.
But before we go far we need to pause and ask: when and where did the rain start beating us?
As someone who has managed projects targeting adolescent girls and young women under the so-called DREAMS project in Northern Uganda, I feel compelled to share some of the insights that I gleaned from my grassroots work.
Let me start by sharing an anecdote from David Foster. Two adolescent fishes are swimming peacefully in the water. An elderly adult fish swims past them and asks, “how’s the water, boys?” The two young fishes roll their eyes and continue swimming ahead without answering the old Empuuta. After swimming 5 meters or more, one of the youngster fish asks the other, “what the hell is water?” Unbeknown to the two young fishes, water had been the medium and place they have been staying in all their lives. But because the water was so normalized, they didn’t even know that it existed and that was why they were so shocked when the older fish asked them about the state of water.
And into this similar kind of “unknown” milieu is what our current teenagers are growing in. The family as the first “water” that our youngsters swim in is deeply broken. In the past, it was said that it takes a village to raise a child. It is no longer the case. We as parents are busy. We leave home early and return late. We get irritated at our children’s “crappy questions”. Instead of answering questions and attending to their needs, we prefer to present erudite papers at conferences that take us away from home with dangerous consequences for our children. For example, during the lockdown, there was a heart-rending story of a single mother with three children — two girls and one boy. Because of her busy schedule, she left the children to their own devices only to discover that the girls were pregnant and it was their brother responsible for both pregnancies. The children were playing group sex from watching pornography.
So that’s one: children are getting spoilt simply because we, as parents, including me, by the way, are simply not doing our jobs. We have become modern slaves — that’s working for the companies that don’t care about us — rather than attending to the growth and wellbeing of our children. Yet the little ones notice and record it. Never think that because of their fragility and innocence, children don’t register. They do.
Second is our community. When I was growing up, a complete stranger could give you an almighty whopping when he finds you playing along the road instead of running to school. The spirit of ubuntu that made it the duty of everyone to be concerned about the conduct and behavior of children has died out. Instead, children are allowed to form their character from watching television and the internet. This is a time bomb that will explode in our faces soon enough.
For us in Northern Uganda, the war, and the dislocation of people into the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camp broke our social fabrics. Since then, our protective social ecosystem has not fully recovered. There is a lot of transactional sex that is happening due to the deprivations that have been escalated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In my experience, the girls engaged in commercial sex activities usually quit once they have alternative sources of income. It is therefore important that interventions must purposely increase opportunities for growing incomes and development of business skills among adolescent girls and young women including non-formal education skills training.
In the final account, interventions to tackle teenage pregnancies need to be multi-pronged. These include parenting training, retention of girls in schools, providing access to sexual reproductive health services and information including age-appropriate sex education, access to and information about contraceptives, life-skills training, and improving the socio-economic status of households. Furthermore, no one institution can tackle teenage pregnancies, we need a coordinated and collaborative approach drawing on the unique strengths of a multiplicity of players. The most important player being parents, the community, cultural institutions, religious leaders, schools, and government institutions including health facilities and the social service workforce.
The writer is a public health professional with experience in managing SRHR Project