Northern Uganda continues to make a steady trudge toward recovery from the ravages of the two-decades-long rebel Lord’s Resistance Army conflict, which ruined its economy from 1986.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Acholi sub-region, it also left another trail of destruction and despair among teenage girls, who became victims of pregnancies and gender-based violence that have scarred their lives irreversibly.
A four-day on-the-ground visit to the three districts of Oyam, Lira and Apac found a Lango sub-region gripped by many effects of COVID-19, including teenage pregnancy, child marriages, and gender-based violence. Women abandoned their homes due to unending violence, leaving teenage daughters in charge of homes.
These circumstances made the girls easy prey for sexual predators — right from their fathers, brothers, uncles and grandparents.
By the time the lockdown was lifted, the situation had worsened to a point where one in every five households had a teenager with either a child or a pregnancy because many had been raped or defiled.
There is a 12-year-old girl in Adagawea village that was raped by a neighbour and is now raising a fellow child. There is a 14-year-old girl at Aputi village that was defiled and impregnated by her uncle after the mother fled their home due to domestic violence.
There is a 14-year-old who was defiled, but whose mother chose to take $197 (Shs 700, 000) from the suspect and abandoned her daughter with a six-month-old child. We also met a 15-year-old girl at Byenek B village who was defiled and burnt by the suspect.
Those girls are just a handful of the 354,736 teenage pregnancies that were registered in 2020 across the country, and the 290,219 recorded from January to September 2021. Those figures translate to a monthly national average of 32,000.
Currently, there are no statistics to show how many cases were recorded countrywide by the end of 2021, though the number is estimated to have surpassed that of 2020.
In 2020, Lango alone registered 13,192 teenage pregnancies. The region comprises the nine districts of Oyam, Lira, Kwania, Apac, Kole, Dokolo, Amolatar, Otuke and Alebtong. By September 2021, the region had registered 25,812 teenage pregnancies.
Data from the National Population Council and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) show that Lango has an estimated population of 2.3 million people as of July 2018, with over 1,332 schools. These include; 871 primary schools, 118 secondary schools, seven technical schools, 11 tertiary schools, four teachers colleges two special-needs schools. However, most of the victims were in primary schools.
When schools reopened in January 2022, most of the affected girls had no hope of returning to class. They have stayed home to fend for their children. According to Charles Twine, spokesperson of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (CID), some parents who report defilement cases do not have proof of age of the children or any evidence to cause arrest.
“A parent must prove the age of the defiled child and [that there was] penetration. They must also prove who did the penetration,” Twine said.
“The age can be proved by birth certificates or school registers for those who are in school.”
Even after reporting cases, Twine said, some parents defeat the quest for justice by conniving with suspects after receiving some money.
“They even help the perpetrators to get away. And when the police come asking, they feign ignorance. Since we also have no evidence that parents took money from suspects, they get away with the crime. But where a parent is caught red-handed taking money from the suspect or participating in child marriage, they too are arrested,” he explained.
Though many parents and guardians blame the spike in the number of teenage mothers on the shutdown of schools for two years, some community members fault parents for being negligent.
Scovia Awor, a resident of Abyenek A Okom parish, Ngai sub-county in Oyam district, is taking care of her six-month-old granddaughter. She said the shutdown of schools forced her 16-year-old daughter Awor Ann (name changed to protect her because she is a minor) to stay home fulltime. Awor was raped and impregnated by her paternal uncle.
“My daughter was in P7 and all these years nothing like this had ever happened. If she had been in school, the suspect would not have had access to her… I blame the government for closing schools and making our children exposed to sexual vultures,” Awor said.
Betty Acac, a resident of Adagawea village, Ogur subcounty in Lira district, said her niece, Irene Amuge, was not sexually active until the lockdown started.
“She was a responsible girl whose daily routine involved going to school, coming back home, and helping us with home chores. Amuge had no time to mess around. But when the government closed schools, she was made redundant and started spending time with the man who defiled her. She was only 14 years old, and he took advantage of her naivety,” Acac said.
Susan Awor, the LC1 vice chairperson of Adagawea village, blamed parents for neglecting their children and spending a lot of time in bars.
“These parents should not blame the government. It is their responsibility to take care of their children,” Awor argued.
“The country was under lockdown and they should have taken advantage [of that time] to spend time with their children and remind them of the dangers in the society, including teenage pregnancy and diseases like HIV/Aids. But most of them have abandoned this responsibility to schools and forgot that these are their children.”
When President Yoweri Museveni announced the closure of schools on March 18, 2020, Diana Adong (named changed to protect her) was 12 years old and had just joined primary four at a school in Ogur subcounty, Lira district.
Adong was forced to stay home with her mother and the man who “inherited” the widow after the death of Adong’s father many years ago. This 12-year-old girl’s dreams were shattered.
Her mother, a village drunkard, left Adong to fend for herself whenever she headed to the bar every morning. On Monday, May 11, 2020, Adong’s mother sent her to the trading centre to buy soap and salt. On her way, she met the suspect. He shoved her into a nearby bush and defiled her.
Adong, whose breasts have barely sprouted, is currently feeding a 10-month-old baby, in between working eight hours a day in people’s gardens where she is paid less than $1 (Shs 3,000). Despite police efforts to hunt down the suspect, he is still on the loose.
Adong delivered her baby under the most difficult of circumstances. Unable to afford hospitalization, Adong had her baby at home, with only her mother available to help.
“Many people told me to abort,” Adong said. “They were scared I would not manage to give birth to this child. But my mother refused and insisted that I keep the pregnancy. My mother also helped me give birth from home when it was time because we did not have enough money to pay for hospital bills.”
Now aged 14, Adong does not think she will ever go back to school. And she is not alone. Most teenage pregnancy victims in Lango did not return to school even after delivering their babies.
Irene Amuge was only 14 years old when she got pregnant in 2020, just after the country was put under lockdown. She went to the same school as Adong. She was in Primary 5. When the lockdown started, her 26-year-old “boyfriend” told her it was okay to consummate their relationship with sex.
According to Amuge, they had intercourse twice and the man promised her everything would be okay. She became pregnant after the second sexual encounter.
Amuge told her mother about her predicament. The suspect was arrested, but a few days later, she saw him walking around free. She would later find out that her mother received $197 (Shs 700,000) from the man to drop the case.
Amuge’s mother has since abandoned her and her baby and got married to another man. Amuge is now at the mercy of her paternal aunt and other well-wishers in the community.
For Awor Ann, the story is not so different. We met the 15-year-old in Abyenek A village, Ngai subcounty in Oyam district. She recently sat her primary seven examinations and scored aggregate 20, despite caring for her six-month-old baby she gave birth to in May 2021. She was allegedly raped by her uncle.
Awor’s abusive father beat up their mother every day until she left. Awor was left in charge of the family since she was the eldest child. The father abandoned the home, too, leaving his brother to take care of his family and get easy access to Awor’s hut. He raped her several nights until she became pregnant.
Awor is ready to join senior one but the man who raped her still lives in the same compound. The family decided that reporting him to the police was unnecessary and would ruin his reputation. Awor hopes to become a nurse someday and help mothers and children.
The government has come up with several interventions including; Guidelines for Prevention and Management of Teenage Pregnancy in School Settings in Uganda, formation of a multi-sectoral approach that includes; ministries of Education, Health, Gender, and stakeholders such as religious and cultural intuitions.
According to the minister of state for primary Education, Dr Joyce Moriku Kaducu, the guidelines are meant to help schools understand how to deal with teenage mothers and ensure that numbers do not increase. It provides for teachers, especially senior women and men to counsel learners about the dangers of early sex.
“We have already communicated that schools will form clubs to educate students to do the right things. We also have senior male and women teachers that have been designated and we have a guideline for them on how to handle these critical tender-age children because this is a time when they transit to adulthood,” Moriku said.
Dr Fredrick Edward Makumbi, a lecturer in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, supports the formation of clubs but prays that the approach will involve boys too.
“Those young girls who are in these clubs will now be seeing clear examples of classmates or friends who are struggling with pregnancy and school and they will say, ‘I don’t need to become pregnant because these are real-life examples. I think this could be one channel that can enlighten the young people,” Dr Makumbi said.
However, Rose Wakikona, an activist and lawyer with The Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), said the government has not dealt with this issue comprehensively.
“It is one thing to provide space for young teenage mothers to attend school while pregnant or breastfeeding, but have they put in place facilities that can accommodate their special needs?” she asked.
“…If you are looking at a school environment without a breastfeeding room, no school nurse who has been trained to handle pregnant women, no provision of folic acid and a resting room, a good balanced diet, then I think the government has not prepared enough to accommodate the girls.”
In 2018, the ministry of Education drafted the National Sexuality Education Framework. The Framework suggested topics such as Sexuality and Human Development, Sexuality and Relationship, Sexuality and Sexual Behavior as well as Sexuality and Sexual Health.
However, the framework was shelved because religious leaders opposed the exposure of three-year-olds to such education. In November 2021, High Court Lady Justice Lydia Mugambe directed that a policy be made by the ministry of Education to guide the teaching and implementation of the framework within the next two years.
But Dr Moriku said they have come up with guidelines on how to teach sexuality education within the morals of Ugandan culture.
“Ours is within the morals of our culture. The most powerful tool we have is information. But information, which is age-appropriate. You cannot start teaching the use of contraceptives/family planning to a four-year-old baby. What is relevant in the curriculum like teaching about reproductive organs at the right time is what should be translated in the informal way of teaching them. We are not going to be compelled by the court to do what some individuals want. We have a system and a legal department that will advise,” Moriku said.
Rose Wakikona, a lawyer with CEHURD, one of the organizations in the case, said the government must respect the High court’s decision to integrate sexuality education into the curriculum.
“If the government ignores the court order, definitely we shall take it further and ask the court for the execution of this judgement, because we can be able to do that. The government of Uganda, through the Attorney General, has already filed a Notice of Appeal with the Court of Appeal against the court judgement. For us, we are excited because this is an opportunity again to be able to amplify our voices that now is the time to provide this much-needed information to young people,” Wakikona said.
Meanwhile, members of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) have agreed that teen mothers should be allowed back into schools to finish their studies.
Dr. Joseph Sserwada, the co-chair of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, blames the government for ignoring their advice on the sexuality education issue.
“At the beginning, we were consulted and we gave our ideas. We said that all school-going children from kindergarten up to about primary four should be taught about hygiene. Then from primary five, adolescence begins and naturally, these are now growing into mature people, and depending on where they come from, they are beginning to enter puberty. So, we said those can be taught sexuality education. We do not support children being taught about the use of contraceptives or abortion like most NGOs are pushing the government to do.”
The ministry of Education has also partnered with cultural institutions like Buganda Kingdom to engage girls and boys in counseling and reproductive health training. This is being done under Buganda’s Ekisaakaate Kya Nabagereka (Royal Enclosure) Project, a camp that nurtures girls and boys in Buganda Kingdom into being responsible members of society.
It was started by the Queen of Buganda Kingdom, Sylvia Nagginda, sixteen years ago. According to Isaac Kintu, the manager of the Ekisaakaate Kya Nabagereka project, they carried out both virtual and physical lessons for children during the lockdown. He also said they have dealt with several cases of teenage pregnancies during the last two years, including that of a sixteen-year-old girl who was defiled and impregnated by her father in Butambala district.
“This man threatened the girl that if she talked, he would kill her. So, she had feared to tell us, but she later opened up during one of the sessions. We immediately talked to the district probation officer. To our shock, he informed us that he already had two other cases of the same man raping his biological children. We asked why they didn’t prosecute, he said each time they arrest him, the man bribes his way out of jail,” Kintu said.
With the help of the Nabagereka Foundation and Justice Centres Uganda, this man is currently in jail.
What can be done to end this problem?
The largest cause of teenage pregnancy in Uganda is the lack of information by both the children (boys and girls) and parents. Parents are afraid to speak to their children about changes in their bodies and the consequences that come with engaging in sex at an early age.
Also, parents, especially mothers, have not been empowered to speak up against domestic violence. They are forced to leave their homes and expose their daughters to the dangers that come with such violent mother-less homes.
There is also a gap caused by the lack of NGOs in these areas, no safe spaces to shield the girls, nor skilling institutions to help the victims that may be thrown out of their parents’ homes for refusing to get into early marriages. This leaves the girls with no other choice, but to marry these older men brought by their parents.
Jennifer Alwoch, a freelance women’s rights activist in Lira, said the government should promote awareness on sexual reproductive and health rights especially in refugee camps and rural areas where most young girls have no access to information about the same.
“For example, [awareness] on how to use family planning methods and where to find them. This should apply to only those over 18 years. The rest should abstain and forget about sex or else the consequences await them. Sex education should be conducted in schools and at home by parents; they shouldn’t shy away from having conversations around sex with children. There are laws in place by government and that should be exercised on the perpetrators,” Alwoch said.
Rose Wakikona, a human rights activist, said Ugandans should stop burying their heads in the sand, pretending that abstinence is the only way to end the teenage pregnancy pandemic.
“We want to pretend that abstinence is the only thing that we need to educate young people below the age of 18 while presuming that they are not having sex. But statistics from the Uganda Health Demographic Survey carried out in 2016 suggested that 22 percent of all teenagers reported having some form of sexual activity. But have we taught them how to manage their sexuality and the issue called sex?” asks Wakikoona.
She suggested that sexuality education should move from an abstinence-based curriculum to include issues of contraception, abortion, sexual minorities and sexual violence.
Dr Makumbi said if the government is going to depend on teachers to act as counselors, they (teachers) should receive extra training on sexuality to know what information is appropriate for the different ages.
“Identify appropriate information for children in different classes. I think there should be a curriculum for training teachers, whether junior or senior, in the area of sexuality education. What should they be saying, when, and to whom? I don’t think you are going to assume that because you are a teacher, you know. No, these are subspecializations,” Dr Makumbi argued.
Agnes Nantaba, a concerned parent, said the introduction of empowerment projects for women would shield girls from such problems, especially if mothers can be helped to learn skills that earn them a living and keep their children in school.
She also wants the government to prioritize carrying out routine reproductive health camps in rural areas, especially in districts that are hard to reach.
With the schools now reopened, there is hope among parents, government and other stakeholders that the numbers will reduce, as was the case before the pandemic.
According to data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the number of teenage pregnancies increased by 6.4 percent between 2017 and 2018, then reduced by 2.1 percent from 2018 to 2019, and then by about 0.9 percent between 2019 and 2020.
Although there is no marked increase in teenage pregnancy between 2019 and 2020, it is worth noting there is a marked increase in teenage pregnancy in 2020 (49.3 percent. This signals that indeed the closure of schools for two years led to a surge in teenage pregnancies.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gender Justice Reporting Initiative.