KAMPALA, Uganda – Over the course of this year, teenage pregnancies have increased tremendously, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. In the Northern region, the statistics are even more alarming.
“Teenage pregnancy in Lira district increased to 35.2% in 2019/2020,” said Dr. Achaka Edmond, Assistant District Health Officer, Lira District, at a recently held cultural leaders’ meeting in Lira city.
This percentage is even higher than the already high 25% overall average of Uganda, which is the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET) has gathered, over the course of the years working in different communities, that many of these teenage pregnancies are facilitated by community and most especially, the cultural leaders through allowing the perpetrators to pay small “fines” or even to marry off the impregnated girls.
“Often times, the customs of the land, allow for such archaic practices to happen. This then leaves the girls vulnerable to preying men who know they’ll afford the consequences of their actions,” said Grace Nayiga, Head, Legal Aid and Community Justice, UGANET.
In Iganga for example, the marriage of a 12-year-old girl to a 52-year-old man was facilitated by the cultural leaders there who okayed the whole debacle to proceed. Fortunately, she has since been rescued, but many others have not been as lucky.
Cultural leaders are the most respected people in Ugandan societies. Adults and young people confide in them and even rush to seek help or aid from them.
Therefore, using cultural leaders to end teenage pregnancies would prove beneficial and efficient. The people would listen more to them and take their advice more than they ideally would with other authorities.
“Most people in society look up to these leaders, and see them as role models and idols. If they joined the sensitization program, people in society would pay more attention and listen to their advice,” said Nayiga.
“So many people go to these cultural leaders for counseling and guidance. They also go to them for meditation and confession. If they were more involved they would use that chance to talk to parents about the dangers of child marriages and early pregnancy,” she added.
UGANET holds that cultural leaders, often known as custodians of culture, should be more involved in the fight against these practices of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. They should be in position to communicate effectively to the communities about the fight against child pregnancy during the gatherings they hold.
Cultural leaders should also condemn all the people who are found guilty of perpetuating teenage pregnancies but also work with the government to ensure justice for those affected.
It is important that all stakeholder work together to ensure safer communities for vulnerable women and girls.