Rwanda: Access to Contraceptives for 15-Year-Olds Stirs More Debate

Packets of contraceptives (file photo).
20 November 2019

Pregnancies among girls aged below 18 rose from 17,337 in 2017 to 19,832 a year after, according to official statistics.

Beyond the numbers, these teenage parents, largely mothers face wide-ranging challenges, which has prompted the government to introduce various measure to control teen pregnancies; the latest among them being the proposal to allow teenagers who are 15 years and above to access contraceptives.

The proposal is contained in a draft law, which suggests that the age of those allowed to access contraceptives be reduced from 18 years to at least 15 years.

The proposal has stimulated debate among the general public with President Paul Kagame also weighing in on the issue during a recent press conference.

"I’m not sure this will solve the problem. I think it will instead affect these teens psychologically; they will take it as if they are being given the go ahead, now that they’ll be having something to protect them,” the President said while responding to a question from a journalist in regards to universal access to contraceptives.

“And I don’t think this is a good message,” he added. “We should fight teenage pregnancy, by first agreeing that it’s a problem. And work on reducing it to the minimum as we also hold the people involved accountable.”

The New Times spoke to parents, teachers, the civil society and students on what they thought about the draft law.

Adeline Abayisenga, a 21-year-old student from Nyamasheke District, said that; “If the law is passed, easy access to contraceptives will be helpful to a lot of young people.”

Like Abayisenga, Celine Nyiramundanikure, a mother of three, welcomed this effort.

“In the current situation, Rwanda as a country does not increase in size but the population does. Teenagers are not the best at making decisions and sometimes end up pregnant.”

We cannot force the teenagers to abstain, she said, adding that; “I think by granting them access, they’ll have an alternative.”

However, some argue that once passed the law could encourage more teenagers to indulge in sexual intercourse instead of abstaining.

“I think the approach can cause some of the minors to engage in sex even when they had no plans to do so, because they will be given the right to do so,” Benie Umwali, a senior five student at Lycee De Kigali, says.

Jeanine Nirere, a mother of two, also echoed Umwali’s views.

“If you can do something bad and have no negative result, you will not learn. When some have sex, get pregnant and give birth to children that they have to look after, others will learn to abstain,” she explained.

“Easing access to contraceptives would encourage immoral behaviour in minors.”

Maria Balikungeli, the Director of Rwanda Women’s Network, argues that giving 15-year-olds access to contraceptives would be an “exaggeration”.

“Do they even know the long term effects of using them (contraceptives) at their age?” she questioned.

She added: “I think more emphasis should be put on educating them on the abstinence measures, as it is in our culture.”

UNDP states that the contraceptive prevalence rate in Rwanda is at 57 per cent while 17 per cent don’t meet their need.

Contraceptive prevalence is the rate of women who are using or whose partners are using at least one method of contraceptives.

While the debate on access to contraceptives intensifies teenage pregnancies continue to rise, posing various problems to the victims, including increased school dropouts, poverty and sometimes teenage mother denied access to medical services.

In a recent interview with The New Times, Miriam Batamuriza, a lecturer at the University of Rwanda, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Rwamagana campus, explained the dangers of teenage pregnancies.

She says, first and foremost, obstetric consequences are bound to happen among other effects.

Anaemia, Batamuriza says, rises during pregnancy, because teenage mothers often can’t afford healthy foods, or don’t even know how to prepare healthy meals that would keep them and their unborn babies safe.

Even after birth, the baby is likely to suffer malnutrition if no intervention is made to improve nutrition.

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