Three village outcasts and a hidden story

The silent tragedy of teenage pregnancy in Uganda

By Night Stella Candiru
teenage pregnancies, COVID-19, girls education club, adolescent girls, education, Uganda, David Beckham Foundation, early marriages, earl marriage, Adjumani District
UNICEF Uganda/2018/Nakibuuka
14 December 2021

During the second coronavirus disease (COVID-19) wave in 2021, I took a few days off work and travelled to my village in West Nile, Uganda, a community where teenage pregnancy is stigmatized and considered a disgrace to the girl and her family! The loss of bride price, a reflection of ‘bad upbringing’, a mark of ‘moral failure’, the accusatory fingers are many.

On my first walk through the village, I noticed them quite easily: they were walking, yet almost huddled together, each carrying a water jerrycan, eyes to the ground _ each with a rounded belly. As they drew closer, I heard the catcalls and demeaning remarks from a group of boys lounging by. At my quick rebuke the lot fell silent and the girls quickly shuffled on. I could tell that they were extremely embarrassed, flustered and even seemingly frightened. 

‘Second hand girls’?

I asked a lady nearby about the four girls and it was as though a match had been struck;
 “Those prostitutes an embarrassment to our village and their families,” she spat out, “They are such bad influence, I warned my daughter that if she goes near those prostitutes, I will kill her.” 

She mentioned she had not spoken to her daughter about sexuality and the risks of teenage pregnancy but had clearly outlined consequences of premarital pregnancy.  

“Who do you think can marry such second hands girls?” She ranted, “Definitely not any of my sons!’ 

I made a detour and followed the girls, anxious to hear their story. Initially very hesitant, they eventually agreed to talk to me, and as we sat in a somewhat secluded spot, the other side of teenage pregnancy emerged.

“I didn’t want to be ugly”:  I completed my P7 in March 2021 in a good school in Kampala, and I got aggregate 5. I was preparing to join senior one in 2022. My friends told me that if I didn’t have a boyfriend that meant I am ugly since they all had boyfriends. A friend introduced me to her cousin in Senior Five. I used to visit him at their home when both our parents were at work. I wanted to talk to mum about the relationship but she was always busy. When my boyfriend asked for sex I was so scared but he convinced me that everything would be okay and that I was too young to become pregnant. The day I missed my periods he told me to abort and never to mention his name. He even ran away. My friends too stopped talking to me. My mum was so angry especially because dad blamed her for my pregnancy. Dad brought me to live with my grandmother in the village until I give birth. I know my friends and my boyfriend deceived me and I have learnt my lesson. I wish that when schools reopen in 2022, I can return to school because my dream is to become a pilot.  Rina,13 years old.

“No one believes me”: I am the first of eight children. We used to live in town but moved here to the village when dad died. My Uncle agreed to pay my fees so I went to live with him. One night in May 2021, while his wife travelled to visit her parents, my uncle raped me. He threatened never to pay my fees and send me back to the village if I ever told anyone.  I ran away and went back to village. I did not even tell my mum the truth as I desperately wanted to study, become an engineer and relieve my mum’s suffering. However, my uncle had told her that he caught me sleeping with a man in the house, and he did not want me back in his house as I was a prostitute. Everyone believed him. Even my mum. His wife too. I hated everyone and tried to take rat poison.  My mum beat me up, warning me not to add to her sorrow. She said I had embarrassed her before her in laws. Lina and Mena befriended me at the well. We always move together so that when people laugh at us, we have each other. Nurah, 15 years old.

“He promised to marry me”: I am the third of 10 children and it is hard for my parents who are farmers to take care of us. My boyfriend who is a boda boda rider used to give me money for books, pens and lunch. He promised to marry me if I slept with him. When I got pregnant, he accused me of promiscuity and even denied knowing me at all. Now I don’t know what to do because my parents are too angry with me and they threatened to chase me away. I learnt that he also made another girl at our school pregnant and that he is going to marry her.  Lina, 16 years old.

Who is really responsible?

I saw more pregnant teens that day and in them, the crushed hopes and betrayal of Lina, Mena, Nurah and thousands of teenage girls estimated to have gotten pregnant during the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda. I contemplated over whose responsibility it is to provide reproductive health education, create a support system to deal with peer pressure, the stigma of teenage pregnancy and the rebound to a productive life after childbirth. I realized that it starts with the uncle who takes a child under his wings, the families that makes time for candid conversations, the community that provides corrective support. Even as I purposed to speak to their parents individually and told them about organizations that support girls to acquire life skills and thrive, and also contacted the district child protection focal point for support I knew that teenage pregnancy starts and ends with you and me.