Rwandan Officials Investigate Reported Rise in Teen Pregnancy, Peg Free Education as Culprit and Solution


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Rwanda’s Gender Monitoring Office is investigating reports by school administrators of a rise in pregnancies among their students, causing them to drop out.

KIGALI, RWANDA – Farida Akingeneye says she was 18 and attending school when she got pregnant. Akingeneye, an orphan in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, had become intimate with a local houseboy because he was able to help support her financially.

“He used to give me lotion and other most necessary materials for girls, promising me that he will marry me,” says Akingeneye, now 21. “As I am an orphan and couldn’t rely entirely on my sister who looks after me, I loved him, and I got his baby.”

But the father was not interested in marrying her or helping her to raise their child, she says. She had to drop out of school, which interrupted her pursuit of two goals.

“I was planning to finish school and get a job to help my relatives,” she says.

She had looked forward to becoming a strong woman with a good job and supporting herself, but the pregnancy ruined her future, she says.

As government offices investigate a rise in teenage pregnancy reported by school administrators, officials and residents link the phenomenon with universal education initiatives because long commutes increase female students’ contact with men. A lack of education in the home about the taboo topic of sex leaves girls and young women unprepared to evaluate the potential consequences of unprotected sexual intercourse. Peer influence at school also encourages them to date. When students get pregnant, many drop out because of shame and a lack of resources. But school and community leaders pledge to help young mothers return to school, where administrators call for more sexual and reproductive health education.

Rwanda’s Gender Monitoring Office is planning to release a report on the dimensions of the rise in pregnancies among students.

The office began hearing reports from schools in 2012 that staff members were seeing more teenage pregnancies, says Patrick Ntunga Mico, director of the gender monitoring and audit unit at the Gender Monitoring Office.

After hearing alarming anecdotal evidence about increases in teenage pregnancies among schoolgirls, the Ministry of Education requested that the Gender Monitoring Office conduct a report about the causes of gender-based violence in primary and secondary schools, says Aquiline Niwemfura, the executive secretary at the Gender Monitoring Office.

“As you know, some of teen pregnancies come amongst forms of gender-based violence,” she says.

The office is not ready to release the data on teenage pregnancies that it has gathered in its research while investigating the testimonies from schools, Niwemfura says.

In 2008, Rwanda launched a nationwide education initiative that provided nine years of basic education for free. In 2012, Rwanda introduced the 12-Year Basic Education program, which increases the number of years of free schooling from nine to 12. It plans to fully implement this initiative by 2015.

As a result of the initial program, the number of girls in secondary school – grades six through 12 – doubled from 2008 to 2012, according to the Ministry of Education.

Government officials and local residents link this increase in school enrollment with the reported rise in teen pregnancies.

Before, girls who were not in school used to stay home with their parents and help with house chores, says Josephine Mukanyangenzi, a mother of three children ranging in age from 15 to 24 in Kigali. Their parents did not allow them to go out unattended, so there was no temptation to get involved with men.

“But now with development, they go to school,” she says. “We don’t know who they encounter on their way. That’s when they get pregnant.”

The success of the state’s education program may also be partially to blame for teenage pregnancies because it enables parents to shed responsibility for their children, Mico says.

“Parents are no longer responsible because they know the government supports children through the free 12-Year Basic Education program,” he says, “and they forget to give transport fees and food to their children.”

Female students who do not board at school end up hungry or unable to travel home, Mico says. These teens may seek help from men with bad intentions.

There are nearly 20,000 villages in Rwanda’s roughly 2,150 cells. Each cell has just one public school, so it is likely far from students’ homes. Without transport money, students who commute must walk an average of 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) in order to get to school.

Most of the female students who become pregnant are those who commute to school from their homes instead of boarding at school, says Felicien Ngirabakunzi, the director of Ntsinda College, a secondary school in Rwanda’s Eastern province, in a phone interview. He views those without reliable transportation as the most vulnerable.

“We have realized that bicycle-taxi drivers are responsible for pregnancies of most of our pregnant students because they are the ones who give them a ride home, and they socialize,” he says in a phone interview.

But it is unfair to blame all taxi drivers, says Leocadie Mukamurenzi, a mother and resident of Kigali.

“They are normal persons as others,” she says.

A few bad actors can harm the reputation of the whole group, but each person does not have the same education or background, she says. Men in other professions also get teenage girls pregnant.

“There are other type of people who are responsible for pregnancies, such as houseboys, schoolmates, and other men who give them things that they need in their daily lives,” Mukamurenzi says.

Cultural pressure to not speak about sex increases girls’ vulnerability when they are away from home, health care professionals say.

Some parents are hesitant to speak frankly to their children about sex, says Agnes Mukamana, health technical manager at CARE International, an organization that promotes women’s empowerment and the protection of vulnerable children.

“Parents in Rwanda still have what I can call ignorance,” she says, “or they just feel shameful to provide their children with sex education to the point that a child may reach the age of 15 ‘knowing’ that babies come from navels.”

As a result, a girl can reach her teenage years without any knowledge of the potential consequences of unprotected sex, including pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, she says. This makes her vulnerable when she goes out in the world, such as when she is traveling to school.

Parents differ on whether they educate their children about sex.

“I have realized how important it is to have talks with our children,” Mukanyangenzi says. “In addition to this, authorities always sensitize us to do so during our village meetings.”

But other parents do not, she says.

“It’s not all parents who talk with their children,” she says. “There are also some who don’t care.”

But even if parents educate their children about the topic, the children may not listen, Mukanyangenzi says.

“There are children who ignore their parents’ advice, and they just follow what their peers tell them to do,” she says.

Peer influence at school is also a factor.

Fridaus Bamurange, 19, a resident of Kigali, has a 5-month-old baby. She gave birth when she was 18 while in her fifth year of primary school.

She felt indirect pressure to date from school friends who had boyfriends, she says.

“I realize the influence comes unwillingly,” she says. “You want to be like others in the same group. But I feared to tell them about my pregnancy. They knew it later.”

Peer influence contributes to girls becoming sexually active before they are ready, Mico agrees.

“There is also the problem of imitation,” he says. “For instance, girls will always wish to be like their friend who has a boyfriend. Most of them are not old enough to know how to protect themselves or be aware of consequences that are in unprotected sexual intercourse.”

Although better sex education in the home is crucial, girls must also take responsibility for their futures by resisting peer influence, he says.

“A girl must also contribute by protecting herself from the people who want to have sex with her,” he says. “And they have to be happy of who they are and avoid imitating their peers.”

When teenage girls become pregnant, many drop out of school.

Akingeneye, the young mother, felt she had no choice but to leave school after she became pregnant, she says.

“Of course, I immediately dropped out,” she says.

After the baby was born, she chose to not resume her education.

“I felt I had lost a lot of time, to the point that a return to school no longer interests me,” she says.

Bamurange had to care for herself and her new baby alone, she says. This did not leave time for school.

“After I gave birth, I didn’t move in with the man who is responsible for the pregnancy,” she says. “I also dropped out of school for me to be able to look after my baby.”

Most teenagers who learn that they are pregnant immediately drop out of school because they are ashamed, Mico says. It is not the schools that suspend them.

The choice to leave school because of pregnancy is a misguided one, Ngirabakunzi says. School is the best place for a student who is pregnant or a new mother because the school authorities can provide psychological and material support.

“But a culture of shame around teenage pregnancy results in most teen mothers staying at home after they give birth,” he says.

Despite the cultural and social pressures working against young mothers, some who have dropped out are finding support in their communities from local authorities and organizations to help them to return to school.

Ernestine Nyirangabo is a resident of Kabuga I, a cell in eastern Kigali, and a member of her cell’s advisory council.

“We receive problems of the village’s residents and see who needs support, and together we find a solution,” she says.

The local government helps young people who have dropped out of school to take advantage of the government’s free education initiative, she says. It also connects them with organizations that will support their return with financial assistance and school materials, such as books and uniforms, or will pay tuition at schools awaiting full implementation of the government program.

“We sensitize them to go back to school, as the government has introduced 12-Year Basic Education free for all children,” she says. “And when they want to pursue their studies, we help them get sponsors for this.”

Authorities in Bamurange’s area have been encouraging her to go back to school, and she is planning to pursue technical studies, she says.

Akingeneye does not want to return to school, but she would like to see fewer girls become pregnant, she says.

The world is full of temptations, so she advises girls and young women to always use condoms to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Sexual and reproductive health education in school can teach students how to prevent these pregnancies, educators such as Ngirabakunzi say.

“We actually have a special lesson about reproductive health, and that’s where they learn about how to prevent themselves from unwanted pregnancies,” he says. “They learn different possible ways to do it.”

This type of practical education will combat the phenomenon of increasing pregnancies among female students, Ngirabakunzi says.

“I am convinced that if they practice all these methods, it can reduce unwanted pregnancies,” he says.

GPJ translated this article from Kinyarwanda.