“When I first discovered I was pregnant, I did not know what to do. I was naive. I was still in school. Eventually, I had no choice. I dropped out of school.”
I remember a young mother telling me those words. I wished her story was rare. But it is not.
My names is Betty. I work for the charity Build Africa in western Uganda. And I can tell you that this is the nightmare many girls here go through.
Faced at a young age with such an adult situation, they will struggle to accept it. They cannot live a normal life as though nothing has happened.
The education system in Uganda gives little attention to sex education. It is an unheard of topic on the school timetable, probably due to the rigid norms of society – which instead leaves children to learn for themselves.
This means girls often engage in sex far too young, and many conceive while still in in the upper years of primary school. On rare occasions society might allow for pregnant girls to continue their education and be given opportunities their future prosperity depends on (though they will struggle with limited support). But, for most, motherhood puts an end to ambitions.
Becoming a mother at any age can be exhausting, but for young girls in rural Uganda it can be devastating.
They will receive little or no support from their family, teachers or friends to work through the obvious anxieties of child bearing and care. Instead, they are looked down upon as “uneducated”, discriminated against and disregarded as society misfits.
In the same way, the men or boys responsible for the pregnancies do not always show concern for their female partners, nor do they face any real consequences socially. Of course, worried mothers will try to help their girls through such a time, but faced with the stigma, many fathers remains in shock forever.
I know that many may think that contraceptives are an answer to young pregnancies. But when low levels of education mix with a male-dominated society, girls are not afforded the option.
With their education cut short, what NGO workers such as myself call “health seeking behaviours” can be very poor in in young women.
They hardly make any antenatal and postnatal visits to health facilities, struggle to take their children for important immunisations, and, without literacy skills, cannot interpret medical instructions – resulting in dangerous under or over dosage of medicines.
The combination of poverty and poor education sadly means that hygiene and sanitation can be compromised at home. Without a stable income to afford basics such as soap, medicine or clothes, there are high infection rates – especially amongst the under-fives.
This pressure, mixed with social stigma of being “uneducated”, means that vulnerable young mums can be considered by themselves as well as others to be the “lowest of the low”. With no self-esteem, wives cannot challenge their husbands on the issues that matter to them, leading to increasing rates of domestic violence and abuse.
But, despite this, I am given hope.
The young women I work with exhibit resilience. They are determined to change things. Not just for themselves, but other young women in their community.
That same young mother I remember speaking to now volunteers in her community – giving support and advice to those voiceless young girls facing the same frightening future.
She told me:
“When I look back, I cannot forget that it was a struggle and I still remember vividly the depths of despair I felt. But, now I know it is possible to get through it and be just as successful as anyone else.
“I beg any girl who finds herself in a similar situation, not to lose hope. It will be a difficult journey for a while, but no matter what, hold your head up, stay in school and work hard. I promise you will thank yourself for it one day.”
Please help transform the life of a young mum in the communities Betty works with: support Build Africa's #MumsReadKidsSucceed appeal. It could be the most powerful thing you do today.
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