Iganga District, Uganda — "It was a mistake! Getting married early robbed me of everything," Naiga Zaina*, 14, says about the encounter that led to her early pregnancy, which she now wishes had never happened.
Through sobs punctuated by cries from her baby, she explains that she was in grade seven at primary school when she fell pregnant. At the time, Naiga's friends at school already had boyfriends and one of them encouraged her to accept the passes being made at her by a boy.
"The day the boy asked me for sex, I consulted my friends. They said it was okay. I ended up getting pregnant!" she says with regret.
Many girls in Uganda will relate to Naiga's story. According to the Uganda Health and Demographic Survey (UDHS, 2016), one in four girls aged 15 to 19 is pregnant or has had a baby.
More than 98 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 years are aware of at least one method of modern contraceptives. Yet, only 28 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 years have ever used at least one modern method of family planning, the survey shows.
In Naiga's case, her early pregnancy was somewhat unexpected because she was already receiving information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, as a member of a Better Life for Girls School-based Club.
"We were told about abstinence and safe sex during club sessions. We also talked about our dreams for the future - what we wanted to become. I knew about everything," she says.
But too often, information alone is not enough.
Comprehensive sexuality education empowers youth
"Sexuality education promotes the acquisition of skills in relation to decision-making, assertiveness, communication, negotiation for safe sex, and refusal of unwanted sexual advances," explains Alain Sibenaler, UNFPA Representative in Uganda. Evidence shows that sexuality education programmes are more effective if paired with access to quality and youth-friendly services, he says.
Implemented in 757 schools in Karamoja and Uganda's Eastern regions by Straight Talk Foundation and other partners, the Better Life for Girls School-based Clubs are part of a programme funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency, with support from UNFPA. The programme aims to prevent teenage pregnancy and under-age marriage in Uganda.
Recently, the National Sexuality Education Framework was unveiled by the Government of Uganda. This framework aims to support and protect the sexual development of young people. It does so by equipping and empowering them with information, skills and positive values to understand their sexuality, and to take responsibility for their own and other people's sexual health and wellbeing.
Uganda is signatory to the 2013 East and Southern Africa Commitment on Sexuality Education, signed by the Ministers of Education and Health. The Commitment articulates that sexuality education should be age appropriate and take a culturally relevant approach to providing scientifically accurate, realistic and non-judgmental information about sex and relationships.
What happens to schoolgirls who get pregnant?
Once a girl becomes pregnant, her future is often derailed and she and her family suffer in the long-term. Many are forced to drop out of school, effectively ending their education and locking them into a cycle of poverty.
This was almost the fate of Naiga.
When the school nurse found out that she was pregnant, she immediately brought the issue to the attention of the head teacher, who called Naiga's father to discuss taking her out of school.
"My father was not willing to pay my school fees any more. But the teachers, especially the senior woman teacher, pleaded with my father and the head teacher," says Naiga. "[They] said I was a well-behaved girl, and I also performed well in class."
Thanks to their intervention, it was agreed that she would be allowed to return to school after giving birth.
Early pregnancy leads to school drop-out
Teenage pregnancy is one of the leading causes of girls dropping out of school, a 2017 Ministry of Education Report shows. Whereas 43 per cent of girls drop out due to financial constraints, for 21 per cent it is due to pregnancy.
Naiga gave birth before her final Primary Leaving Examinations and sat the exams just two weeks later. When the results came out, she found she had passed.
"The senior woman teacher encouraged me to study hard," she says. "I did my best."
Naiga is now in Senior One, the first year of secondary school, and she continues to do well despite the difficulty of raising a child while still a child herself. Her dream is to become a lawyer.
Although her father struggles to pay her school fees - and the fees for his remaining children - she is determined to succeed in life. Since she gave birth, she takes the lowest priority among her 20 siblings, she says.
Because of what she has been through, she shares her story and encourages other girls to concentrate on their studies and forget about boys: "I will always give [myself as an] example."
Naiga is an illustration of a girl capable of determining her own path, despite the many obstacles.
"My dream is to graduate and become a lawyer so I can make money and take care of my son, myself and my family," she says.
- Prossy Jonker Nakanjako
*Name changed to protect her privacy