Northern Uganda continues to emerge out of the Lord's Resistance Army conflict, which brought ruin to its economy for close to two decades from 1986.
But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Acholi Sub-region, it reminded the locals of the folklore stories told by their forefathers about a deadly plague that could come from the east and sweep across the desolate grounds leaving a trail of destruction and despair.
In March 2020, schools were closed as the lockdown was imposed. Many girls returned to their homes.
This worsened the situation in the sub-region where one in every five households records a teen below 18 years of age that either has a child or is pregnant.
According to a 2019 APPCAN report, more than 45 per cent of deliveries at health facilities in Acholi are of teenagers, who mainly dropped out of school.
For many parents in northern Uganda, education, even in its poor state, is the only hope out of poverty. However, when a girl gets pregnant while at school, that hope vanishes and usually she becomes an outcast to the family and community. Other girls want to abort so that they can continue to pursue their studies.
During the lockdown, homes became a den where men and young boys preyed on girls. Some of the pregnant girls we talked to did not know how a woman gives birth.
The children's Act indicates that any person below the age of 18 is a child. These are referred to as young people in the 2004 Uganda National Adolescent Health policy.
Despite the existing legal definition of a child, a girl's sexual maturation - manifested by menstruation and the development of breasts - in many communities are exploited to encourage or force them [girls] to marriage.
Comboni Samaritans of Gulu, a faith-based organisation, says more than 17,000 girls in the eight districts of Acholi became mothers at a tender age.
But Gulu District education officer puts the figure at between 20 and 30 girls who did not return to class after the phased reopening of schools began in February 2021. He, however, says school inspectors could have missed some figures.
To probe this scourge of teenage pregnancies, I travelled through the deeper recesses of Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, and Omoro to speak to victims of teenage pregnancies. Whereas towns continue to sprout, the scars of the LRA conflict are still visible.
I spoke to a 14-year-old, only identified as Aciro, who is breastfeeding her one-week-old baby in Ongako Sub-county in Omoro District. She was in primary five when government announced the Covid-19 lockdown.
"He left and I know that he is not coming back to marry me. He has deceived me three times that he would come back for me but he has not. I have made up my mind to go back to school," recounts Aciro.
She gave birth through a caesarean section.
"I first went to Onagako Health Centre where I did the antenatal on a Wednesday. Then on Thursday, I was shifted to Gulu (Regional Referral) Hospital, but we found that the doctor who worked on me had gone for a meeting. I was then taken to Lacor Hospital. They found that the child was not breathing well. I was operated on that day at about 9pm," Aciro narrates.
Aciro's mother has resolved to take care of the child to allow her daughter go back to school. But as she shares her thoughts, the grandmother interjects saying a girl who gets pregnant while at school is worthless and has lost her chance to study.
"A girl who has given birth at such a young age, I do not think she can study. Maybe if she was in an upper class, but just primary, how will she even finish [her education]?" asks Aciro's grandmother.
In a nearby village in Omoro, another 14-year-old girl, Aber, who gave birth during the lockdown through caesarian section, lives in pain. She was in primary five before the lockdown.
She is forced to dig against the doctor's advice to provide for her child. Her mother is epileptic and cannot take care of the child. She has to move with her child since she lacks a caretaker.
Aber wants to return to class because she sees no future with her estranged boyfriend who impregnated her. He is a minor and has no means to take care of the seven-month-old baby.
Her brother, who is the breadwinner in the home, is 23 years old and has two children with his wife. Speaking off the cuff, he told me that Aber ruined her future by getting pregnant and he will no longer pay her tuition.
Trap for girls
These anecdotes portray the predicament that many girls in this sub-region are trapped in.
Lamaro Barbara Acii has just turned 14. She is the eighth child in a family of nine children. I found her boiling water to bathe her one-and-half month old baby. She was in Primary Five when the lockdown happened.
Her mother has a hearing impairment and we could only speak to her through an interpreter.
She breaks down when speaking about how she was betrayed by her sister's husband when she shared a hut with them.
Acii says her mother and other relatives wanted the baby aborted but one of her uncles intervened, advising them to allow her to give birth.
In Kitgum District, a woman was disappointed to learn that her daughter ran away with a boy in the neighbourhood upon conceiving.
The father wanted the baby aborted.
Because the parents told us they could forgive and take their daughter who was in Primary Seven back to school, we tracked the girl with the help of her sister to where she was staying with the juvenile boyfriend.
The mother-in-law dashed out of the kitchen.
Neighbours later told us such fears are common among parents of boys who impregnated young girls. They believe any stranger who comes to their village in a vehicle could have intentions to arrest their son.
The girl had gone to the market to shop for her two-weeks-old son. She regrets leaving her mother in pain but says she can no longer return to class.
"I was no longer comfortable staying at home. They used to shout at me and I felt maybe I should come and stay with the father of the child," Acii says.
As we spoke to her, the boyfriend arrived on a sports bike demanding to know why we were talking to his wife without his consent. He is 17 years old.
He fears for the future and says he does not yet have the ability to marry.
"I work with an Indian man in town but he pays very little money. If she is to go back to school, I do not think we can stay together," he says.
Many of the youngsters can barely fend for their families.
Kevin Alaroker Aketo, who is 15 years old, is the last born in a family of nine children. Her mother lives in Apaa but she was staying with her Aunt who lives in Awere but she is now living with her boyfriend in a nearby village in Keyo in Amuru.
She missed the 2020 Primary Leaving Examinations that were done in March 2021. Her new home lacks a radio to listen to the Ministry of Education directive for teachers to allow pregnant girls to sit for national exams.
"We do not have a radio here. We get our news from him. He is the one who tells us things then we get to know what is happening in the news," says Aketo.
Aketo's dream to become a nurse is in the distant past shimmering like a mirage in a desert.
When she became pregnant, her boyfriend placed her under the supervision of his other wife, a 17-year-old mother of two. This has brought her a lot of torment and anguish.
"He shouts at me whenever I ask him for child support. I have not yet bought anything to prepare for the day I will deliver. I want to leave and go back to school after giving birth," reveals Aketo.
Sophie Kidega is the senior woman teacher at Pagak Primary School where about nine girls did not return to school for various reasons including pregnancy. She is concerned about the level of neglect by some parents during the Covid-19 lockdown.
"The girls have very low self-esteem. It is very difficult for them to make decisions. We tell them to sometimes be assertive but they are a little bit shy. This is causing them problems. And some girls tell me that their mothers are too rude to them, so they don't disclose their problems," says Ms Kidega.
She accuses parents in villages of not providing support to their daughters.
"As a mother, you have to be close to your girls. Your daughter has to tell you her problems. You should know the stage she has reached. But you find that they [parents] are really lacking that mentorship," argues Kidega, who says most of the girls lie about their age and that of their boyfriends.
Ms Margaret Alanyo, the secretary of women affairs, northern region for Uganda National Teachers Union, says lack of parenting has placed the girls in harm's way. She suggests that the approach to girl-child education should be revised.
"Guidance and counselling needs to be done for these girls at school. We need to bring them closer to women at higher levels. Tell them that when you educate yourself, you can also be like this [role model] woman. Maybe next time, you will be the president," Ms Alanyo explains.
She says the coronavirus lockdown has reduced the gains made in girl-child enrollment in schools.
According to a survey conducted between February and April, 2021 by Comboni Samaritans of Gulu under the Awakening Hope Project, the closure of schools exposed school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 to early pregnancy with more than 17,653 cases reported in the eight districts of Acholi.
The survey reveals that 2,280 school-going girls got pregnant in Gulu with only 40 out of 569 expressing interest to return to school. A total of 640 girls got pregnant in Nwoya, 6,549 in Amuru, 3,855 in Omoro, 1,359 in Kitgum, 1,149 in Lamwo, 910 in Agago, and 920 in Pader.
"17,653 is not a figure that we should be proud of as Acholi and as a nation. Today it starts with 17,653, next time, it will go to many more. Once their future is ruined, we will have a nation that is not literate," says Mr Thomas Tabu, the deputy executive director of Comboni Samaritans.
"In the process of trying to find out, the majority of them expressed that they had no interest in going back to the formal classroom setting. They actually preferred vocational studies," says Mr Michael Oleke, the project development consultant for Comboni Samaritans.
Mr Oleke is also concerned that most of the girls who got pregnant during the lockdown come from broken families.
"There are those who are staying with mothers who are into commercial sex work. We found this common in the areas of Opit in Omoro. There are also those who are total orphans. You find that there is an uncle taking care of them. But during this lockdown, there was no person paying attention to them (the children). The most affected classes were P4, P5, P6 and Senior One," says Mr Oleke.
Comboni Samaritans of Gulu has established a fund worth Shs1.2 billion to among others; provide psychosocial support to teenage mothers and communities, provide sexual and reproductive health services to the teenage mothers, reinstate the teenage mothers in school and establish a livelihood support programme for teenage mothers.
Mr Caesar Akena, the Gulu District education officer, says there is a need to educate children to improve their self-esteem.
"At school level, I would love to see the teachers building self-esteem in our children because when you have self-esteem, you feel you are of value. There are reasons as to why you were born, there is a reason why you should be in school and complete your education," says Mr Akena.
He says the school environment did not prepare children to cope with life when they return home.
"I think we did not do enough. If we had done enough work for our learners in our schools, the lockdown would not cause the pregnancies. Like if you look at the schools in the city or town where I believe the parents are well informed, the parents take care of their learners and so forth, the level of pregnancy is lower in town than in the rural areas," he adds.
Gulu District has recorded a decline of 200 out of 2,920 pupils who were meant to sit for the 2020 Primary Leaving Examinations. Of these, 105 were girls.
Children Act. The children's Act indicates that any person below the age of eighteen is a child. These are referred to as young people in the 2004 Uganda National Adolescent Health policy. Despite the existing legal definition of a child, a girl's sexual maturation - manifested by menstruation and the development of breasts - in many communities are exploited to encourage or force them [girls] to marriage.