6 February 2013

Rwanda: Teenage Pregnancies Our Fault


ON MONDAY this newspaper reported that a 'pregnancy scandal' had engulfed Groupe Scolaire Nsinda, a rural Rwamagana school, leaving the school without a headmaster and in uproar.

Twenty-six girls were found pregnant. Twenty-six! Back when I was in high school, the entire student community would become 'excited' about a single pregnancy rumor, so I can't even begin to understand what is going through the minds of the rest of the students.

Heads have rolled and the blame game has started.

"I discovered high level negligence by the head teacher. His suspension was long overdue," Francois Ndayambaje, the chairperson of the parents committee said. The Chairperson then went on to blame the teenagers parents, saying that they weren't "strict enough".

One teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the teenage pregnancy issue began in 2011. "No one cared and yet this school is just a stone throw away from the District Education Offices," the teacher said.

The State Minister in-charge of Primary and Secondary Education, Dr Mathias Harebamungu, admitted that although he had received reports about the incidents, he blamed district leaders for not acting fast to address the issue. "It is unfortunate that local leaders took all this long to take action," the Minister said.

"It is disgusting to hear what happened to the girls. I want to see to it that culprits are brought to book," the Governor of the Eastern Province, Odette Uwamariya, said.

I can understand why parents, teachers, ministers and governors are up in arms. It's shocking that students, ranging from 14-17 years of age, have been discovered in the 'family way'. There are hard questions that the suspended headmaster (along with his entire staff) must answer. However, we mustn't get caught up in this; we must also have a debate on our children's sexual education. Or lack thereof.

One or two incidents of pregnancy at school, while tragic, aren't cause for widespread consternation. However, when we are talking about double-digit figures, I am forced to question the kind of education these children are getting. And when I talk about 'education', I'm not only talking about history, English and math. I'm talking about the 'facts of life'. Who is teaching them "how to say no"? Who is explaining to them how, and let me whisper it, to have safe sex?

We can keep our heads in the sand like ostriches but the fact of the matter is, a sexual revolution of sorts is upon us. Whereas only a generation ago sex was a huge deal for teenagers' things have changed. The advent of mobile phones connected to the Internet, social media and globalization (or western value systems; whatever you wish to call it) has totally changed the game. Our children are exploring their sexuality a lot more than we ever did.

According to a 2001 UNICEF survey, in 10 out of 12 developed nations, more than two-thirds of teenagers have had sex. In some nations such as the US, the UK, Germany, Norway and Finland, the number is over 80 per cent. However, despite the fact that these teenagers are engaging in intercourse, teenage birthrates have been steadily falling. Why? Because, as the Guttmacher Institute, a NGO working to advance reproductive health found out, teens are either choosing to remain abstinent or effectively using contraception.

What all these countries, which have such rampant teenage sex but declining pregnancies, share is an effective sex education curriculum at school AND at home.

I'm pretty sure that some of these pregnancies could have been avoided by simple advice from a parent like, "don't have sex until YOU feel ready or "just because you feel like you love him (or her) doesn't mean that you HAVE to have sex to prove it". And the rest would have been avoided by condom use and other methods of birth control.

I'm pretty sure that most of the 'baby-daddies' are the girls' classmates. No one is going to imprison them; they aren't "culprits", as the Governor called them. They are just poorly informed young people. We have the responsibility to give our teenagers as much information as possible in order to keep them safe.

Anything less is a dereliction of duty on our part.

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