NAMUTUMBA —At 14, any child is expected to be in school, either would be completing her primary school or should have been one of those children in secondary school.
But, this is not the case for Maliza, in Nsinze Sub County, Numutumba district, in the Eastern part of Uganda.
She is a mother with a seven-month-old baby, whose father, only identified as Kefa, she knew as a Boda Boda rider vanished shortly after forcing himself on her.
With a seven year-old child, it means she was impregnated at the age of 13.
Upon learning that she was carrying a pregnancy, her parents threw her out of their home to find her husband.
Struggling to survive
She looks visibly depressed and confused. While narrating her story, she tells me that life is hard for her and now survives on doing casual jobs including digging in neighbourhood villages to fend for her seven-month daughter.
“I have never seen her father again ever since he vanished on after hearing that I was pregnant,” she says.
She ponders on her next step, on how they would survive each coming day to ensure her child gets something to eat.
It is physically evident, that her daughter, is already malnourished, while herself Maliza silently battles with fistula.
This innocent mother is just among the thousands of the girls who were defiled and impregnated during the prolonged school closure, as part of Uganda’s measure to contain the spread of deadly global COVID-19 pandemic.
Relatedly, another girls, identified as Sarah now 15-years-old, was also impregnated in the same period. She was 14-years then.
Unlike Maliza, Sarah suffered a fatal loss, and also battling fistula. She says it is hard to get treatment, which puts her life at more risk.
Dr. Allan Lubiite, a senior medical officer at Nsinze Health Centre III in Namutumba District discloses that between May to November 2022, the facility he heads has operated up to 142 mothers, out of which 42 are teenagers due teenage pregnancies.
“That’s about 30%, meaning that every 10 mothers who go to the theatre, three of these are teenagers and this isn’t a great picture that we should have as a community,” Dr. Lubiite told PML Daily, also adding that: “These are very young girls who should be in school. They’re the future of tomorrow and the future for this nation.”
Quoting scientific research, he elaborates that such teenagers aren’t ready to carry a child at a very tender age.
Scientifically, he notes that a 22-years-old would be very much appropriate to carry a pregnancy. “A teenage girl, when you get to carry a pregnancy, most likely, many complications will come,” he adds.
“We get to see these girls getting things like prematurity, postpartum haemorrhage, vaginal tears because their birth canal is narrow and when they try to push, they get such complications,” he explains.
Giving birth at such a tender age, Dr. Lubiite says the pelvic bones are always still weak and unable to support normal delivery, resulting into many complications.
He also tells me that such girls need to be attended to by specialists in hospitals, though he was quick to say that many of such girls come from poor families to look for such good services.
He says apart from teenagers being at risk of contracting fistula as a result of obstructed labour, they also expose their newborn babies to injuries during deliveries.
Dr. Lubiite stresses that although some girls and women can be repaired, others live with the condition for life because the operations are not readily available and too expensive.
Such medical conditions among these young mothers, come as a result of a hole created between the birth canal and bladder and the rectum, caused by prolonged, obstructed labour.
This leaves women leaking urine, faeces or both, and often leads to chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation and deepening poverty.
According to a 2016 study by the Ministry of Health, over 200,000 women are living with fistula and 1,900 new cases occur each year in Uganda. Most of those joining the queue are teenagers.
Dr. Lubiite notes there is an ActionAid International Uganda (AAIU) outreach programme which seeks to promote good health habits and also prevent teenage pregnancies in the area.
He urged the parents to protect the girl child, and tasked them to continuously talk to the boy child.
“Please try and educate the girl child as much as you can,” he added.
“When it is in the wee hours of the night and during the evening hours of the day, let the girl child stay at home. Stop engaging them in labour activities like going out in the markets at night to sell Mukene, ground nuts and the like. Let them stay at home and take care of the young ones,” he said.
Using Murals to create awareness
As part of the approaches to create awareness, AAIU is using the murals to spark community conversation around teenage pregnancies, and other harmful practices which might affect the girl child.
Talking about sexual, teenage pregnancy, children marriage and rights violations is not easy, especially in the conservative corner of Uganda, but through the mural approach, AAIU has found a powerful and creative way to address the issue: through artivism— murals, poetry, drama and songs.
Artistic Activism is a dynamic practice combining the creative power of the arts to move the target groups emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.
Murals serve as a reminder and collective thought space. Through what they depict, people can start a conversation about a topic or a community issue that has happened or still happens.
Immaculate Awori, the eastern Uganda programmes officer at AAAIU says this approach dubbed creative activism and artivism campaign helps them to reach out to the different categories of people as including children, youth and the community members.
She stresses that murals/paintings help try to harness the power of art and creativity to inspire people to take action, join their cause, and share their commitment on protecting the girl child.
“We realized that at the peak of COVID-19 and the prolonged closure of schools, Namutumba district registered an unprecedented number of teenage pregnancies,” she notes.
In 2021, from January to October, 3,668 children reported in different health centres in Namutumba district for antenatal services.
“We don’t know how many in the villages that didn’t report or didn’t access antenatal services. But 32 were 15 and below. We even had a 13 year old child getting pregnant,” she says.
Awori explained that it is the reason, AAIU resolved to use a multi-pronged approach.
“That’s how we arrived at this to be able to reach out to the different categories of people we work with including children, youth and the community members,” she adds.
Through the campaign, they also paint schools with different messages around teenage pregnancies, child marriages and child rights violations, mainly targeting the youth.
At least, 11 schools in Ivukula, Kibaale, Nangondo and Nsinze sub counties have been painted.
Among the schools reached include: Ivukula Primary School, Kiranga Primary School, Budwapa Primary School among others.
“A picture tells a thousand words. People forget what they hear but they can’t forget what they see,” Ms. Owori says.
She further explains that the painting is done together with youth and community members.
“For the youth, as they are painting the schools, they are also learning something. We are mentoring them to be responsible but we’re also teaching them to be activists and advocates against teenage pregnancies and child rights violations,” she adds.
“As they’re doing the work, they’re learning at a personal level, but they’re also learning to fight the ills in their community. For the community, at every school we paint, we also do a sensitisation workshop and we do drama, songs and poems to bring out the message,” Ms Awori says.
She stressed that if the art isn’t attracting to them enough, the message in the songs, in the poems and dance can easily communicate to them.
The program also involves different stakeholders such as the probation officer, family protection officer of the Uganda Police, district CLO and CSOs.