It’s a humid Saturday morning when we arrive at Bondo Health center in our air-conditioned land rovers to have a meeting with health workers, teenage mothers and community members. I enter the stuffy metal tin roofed meeting room a little late, and find everyone settled on concrete benches.
All eyes are on a young pregnant woman in the corner, I realise as the discussion is going on that she is not really a full grown adult woman, she is a pregnant teenage girl. Her hands are shaking, she can barely get a word out of her mouth. Her eyes keep darting around the room looking for help. Anyone would feel nervous too, imagine sitting in a room full of strangers while they ask you, “How could you allow yourself to get pregnant?” “Will you be returning to school once you’ve had the baby?”
It must be too overwhelming for a young girl like her, and I doubt she ever considered the consequences of her pregnancy. We continue to ask our questions as though we understand (with our NGO jargon) what it means to be a girl like her. We ask our questions as though opportunities in this area are growing and falling off trees like unwanted over-ripe mangoes.
At first she refuses to answer the questions and others decide to answer for her, They say “Her father died, Her mother went mad, there is nobody to guide her…..” Finally my boss asks, ” What happened to the man who made her pregnant?” There is some mumbling among the participants which dies down immediately and then the question is forgotten, and silence returns. Again my boss insists, “What happened to the man who made her pregnant?” To which there is silence until one brave middle-aged man stands up and says, “You see if she lived closer to me I would have advised her like a daughter to stay away from men, but the children of these days they are different. What can we do?” He shrugs his shoulders and sits down. He seems proud of himself thinking he has said what the NGOs want him to say. But they have still failed to answer the question.
This man who impregnated her has quite simply and quickly been absolved of all responsibility. By now the young girl has already made her way to the back of the room. Unrecognizable among the crowd, she can relax and let them talk as though she isn’t there. Eventually my boss asks another question, “What would the women in this community like to see happen so that girls are better protected from defilement?” He kindly gestures towards the women in the room as he talks to the translator. First there is silence, except for the children playing outside. My boss asks his question again and some smiles appear on the women’s faces. Can you imagine a man actually ignoring what the men have said and now seeking the women’s opinions? Then finally one woman is brave enough to stand up and say, “Here we have no voice. In our community it is the men who make all the decisions. Even if it is our hardwork that brings in the income, it makes no difference, for it is the men who decide how to spend the money, some days you can even fight with your husband to pay school fees for your children.”
The #InvestUGchildren campaign was initiated by UNICEF Uganda in 2014. It aims to highlight the many issues affecting children across Uganda that need to be addressed as part of the vision of becoming a modern, competitive and prosperous, upper middle income country by 2040. According to the Situation of Children in Uganda Report, 1 in 4 teenage girls are pregnant or have a child and 15% of women were married by the age of 15 years. During the recent media tour that took place in December 2015, UNICEF Uganda traveled with journalists from a range of national media houses to 6 districts (in Northern and Eastern Uganda) for a period of five days. This blog post was inspired by a community discussion that took place in Arua district.
Featured Image: UNICEF Uganda. A nurse comforts a 16-year-old pregnant girl in Arua Saturday 5 December 2015. After her mother died, her father suffered mental breakdown and she had to drop out of school. She was impregnated by a man who abandoned her.