Rwanda: Over 78,000 Babies Born to Teen Mothers in Four Years

16 February 2020

A few days ago, First Lady Jeannette Kagame addressed fellow African First Ladies who had gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and voiced her concern about growing gaps in parent-child communication, limited access to sexual reproductive health information and quality services that continue to sabotage efforts to deliver the Africa that the continent's youth deserve.

Mrs Kagame was speaking at the 24th Ordinary General Assembly of the Organisation of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) on the margins of the 33rd African Union Summit.

According to experts, teen pregnancy can have a wide range of health, social, educational, and economic consequences for young people.

The issue of teenage pregnancies has been a topic in many meetings, radio talk shows and on social media.

However, to many, that's as far as the awareness of the issue that is crippling the future of most young girls has gone.

According to official statistics, 17,849 underage girls were impregnated in 2016.

The number slightly eased to 17, 337 in 2017 before jumping to 19,832 in 2018.

From January to August last year, teen pregnancies increased to 15,696, which translates to an average of 1,962 a month. Based on this, an estimated 23, 544 children were born to teen mothers in 2019.

Broken down by leading districts in 2018, Nyagatare registered 1,465 teen pregnancies, Gatsibo 1,452, Gasabo 1,064 and Kirehe 1,055.

So what can be done?

For MP Suzanne Mukayijore, a member of the Rwanda Parliamentary Network on Population and Development, there is a need to take the fight against teen pregnancies to the grassroots level.

'Culture of silence'

Drawing from the success story of the 'Gerayo Amahoro' road safety campaign, Mukayijori said that the same resources and zeal can be used to intensify the battle against teenage pregnancies.

"Why can't we invest the same energy in campaigns to fight teenage pregnancies? Let us involve every teacher, religious and local leader, parent and every child. Let us tackle this issue from the bottom," she suggested.

One of the challenges that have come at the forefront of the reasons behind the rise in the number of teenage pregnancies is the 'culture of silence'.

Some families continue to cover up for the people involved in impregnating teenage girls; owing it to family ties, fear of social alienation and financial incentives.

Mukayijori told The New Times that speaking up is still a challenge in the Rwandans society, especially in rural areas, but holding families and society accountable will significantly contribute to lowering the numbers.

"The people making these girls Pregnant are known to society but no one is willing to speak up. Families keep silent, neighbours follow suit and in the end, you have a society that is covering for people who in some circumstances end up being repeat offenders," she said.

Mukayijori suggested that authorities should find a way to hold such families or members of the society accountable for their silence.

Access to contraceptives

Aflodis Kagaba, the Executive Director of Health Development Initiative (HDI), a healthcare advocacy organisation, says that while conversations are necessary, facts on paper indicate that teenagers as young as 14 are sexually active and the solution is to equip them with the contraception methods should they choose to take that route.

"Evidence indicates that teenagers are sexually active. We need to ensure that they are able to access those services so that we don't have a scenario where a 14-year-old mother is getting pregnant again because of unnecessary legal barriers," he said.

Francisca Mujawase is a statistician and a member of the taskforce that drives the statistics agenda in Rwanda to promote data availability and utilisation for evidence-based national planning and budgeting policy decision making.

For Mujawase, who specialised in Statistics of Social Protection, based on experiences and best practices from other countries, the best immediate solution would be availing and ensuring access to contraceptive services.

"Whether you like it or not, and regardless of the effort that you put in abstinence, teenagers will still have sex. When I do these studies and I find out that, for example, one district has teen mothers that are above the population growth rate, then it is a problem," she said.

The Rwanda Demographic Health Survey (RDHS) 2014-2015 shows that a large number of young people (including those still enrolled in school) are already engaging in sexual relationships that put them at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancies, among others.

The project, implemented in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), indicates that by the age of 19, one in five or 20.8 per cent Rwandan girls, are first-time mothers.

According to official data, teenage pregnancy rate increased from 6.1 per cent in 2010 to 7.3 per cent in 2015.

Need for data

Mujawase also touched on the need for data, which she said would help the Government and its stakeholders to come up with an informed policy.

"When we talk of 17,000 pregnancies per annum, those are the ones that we see. It's an estimation. We have not done thorough research. There is no proper data and no system to monitor the girls and there is a likelihood that this number could be bigger," she said.

This was echoed by the Spokesperson for the Rwanda Civil Society Platform, Dr Joseph Nkurunziza Ryarasa, who said that data should be used to inform policies especially in the interest of the people.

"Authorities must be deliberate at reviewing data to identify meaningful information, patterns, correlations and trends. This can only yield results if it's done in a consistent manner. It's equally vital to look at this with gendered lenses. If we want to ensure that polices respond to the core issue, we should have all key stakeholders represented on the table," he said.

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