Use of contraceptives among teen girls draws mixed reactions

WHEN SHE WAS 16, Twizerimana fell in love and started having sex with an older man.

After several months, the senior two student then started feeling changes in her body only to learn she was pregnant.

“When I told my lover, he asked me to do everything possible to abort or make sure I never mention him as the one who was responsible for the pregnancy,” said Twizerimana.

Twizerimana is now an 18-year-old mother, looking after her baby as she deals with the challenge of teenage single motherhood.

She says when she sees her age-mates go to school while she can’t, she regrets not remaining in school.

Though her parents welcomed her back home after she delivered, she is still treated like an outcast.

Ever since she became sexually active, Twizerimana says she feared using contraceptives, especially since no one talked about them apart from her peers.

She learned about condom use at school but her boyfriend refused to use one.

“My mother would only ask us to be vigilant and be disciplined,” she said. “Rarely do parents discuss with their children things to do with sex and reproductive health in general.”

Twizerimana is not the only woman who has had an unwanted pregnancy as a result of ignorance about contraceptives.

Pregnancy among teenage girls in Rwanda stood at 7.3 per cent, according to the demographic and health survey 2014/15.

Health experts argue that, to reverse the trend, professionals should teach multiple ways to avoid pregnancy, including abstinence and the correct use of condoms, pills, and injections.

Research by different human rights bodies indicate that pregnant girls are pressured to leave school which threatens a girl’s future since it excludes her from a number of opportunities in life, hence perpetuating the cycle of poverty from generation to generation.

Early childbearing also increases health risks for mothers and their newborns, according to health experts.

In low and middle-income countries, babies born to mothers under 20 years of age face a 50 per cent higher risk of stillbirth or dying in the first few weeks as opposed to those born to mothers aged 20-29, according to the World Health Organisation.

However, this view has drawn mixed reactions; some support it, while others argue that teenage girls are too young to have sex and should not be encouraged to use contraceptives.

Early last month, the Minister for Gender and Family Promotion, Esperance Nyirasafari, said youth are increasingly becoming sexually active and it is important that they are taught how to be responsible and use various contraceptive techniques.

The ministry encourages provision of contraceptives to young women to keep them from getting pregnant.

Article 14 of the Maputo Protocol specifies that State Parties shall ensure that the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health, is respected and promoted.

“This includes the right to control their fertility, the right to decide whether to have children, the number of children and the spacing between children, the right to choose any method of contraception,” reads part of the article.

Condoms at the car free zone in Kigali. Nadege Imbabazi

According to the Ministry of Health’s Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Policy 2011-2015, young Rwandans have a right to education, including sexual education and information about sexual and reproductive health.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child gives young people the right to information on sexual and reproductive health including on family planning and contraceptives, the dangers of early pregnancy, and the prevention of HIV and AIDS.

However, talking to The New Times, last week, Isaac Munyakazi, the state minister for primary and secondary education, said under no circumstances should young girls be allowed to use contraceptives. Instead, they should be educated about the importance of abstinence before marriage.

“Telling them that they have another option other than abstinence would be giving them the green light to engage in sex and lose focus on their studies,” he said.

But Dr Aphrodis Kagaba, the executive director of Health Development Initiative (HDI) Rwanda, said that girls below 18 need a youth friendly environment where they can feel free to learn about contraceptives without any fear.

“The challenge is grounded in the culture,” he said. “There is a perception that young girls who are not married should not have access to contraceptives, and we need to break that belief.”

Patrick Wajero, Oxfam country director, agreed that there is a need for society to open up and discuss contraceptives.

Kagaba added that Christians too need to embrace contraceptives and that they should be involved in campaigns to increase uptake levels,” he added.

The Catholic Church has strongly condemned the use of any contraceptives, saying it is not only against the their belief but also against the morality among Rwandans.

Jackline Mujawamariya, a Gisozi resident and mother of five, including a teenage girl, said that even though the issue of teen pregnancies is a serious concern, she does not think easy access to contraceptives is the solution.

“All we need is to strengthen communication with our children.”

“We can raise moral and responsible children who are capable of making the right decisions in their lives,” she said.

Veneranda Burungi, a gender activist, agreed.

“When one is still a child, it is up to parents and the society to teach them what is good and what is bad,” she said. “Allowing young girls to use contraceptive (is not right), when they are grown up, they would blame us because what we did was wrong.”

Malik Kayumba, the head of communication at Rwanda Biomedical Centre, says that the Ministry of Health teaches about reproductive health, including contraceptive use to both the youth and adults.

“We do not encourage teenage girls to use contraceptives, but we empower them so that they are aware of how to use them,” he said.

Mark Bryan Schreiner, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative, highlighted the importance of ensuring everyone’s access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.

UNFPA supports the Ministry of Education’s plans to integrate comprehensive sexuality education so that girls and boys can have scientifically accurate, age appropriate information on sexual and reproductive health, he said.

According to Eduard Munyamariza, the chairman of Civil Society Platform, Rwandans should avoid relenting from their responsibilities of raising morally upright children who will become responsible people in the future.

“Where is morality if young girls are allowed to use contraceptives?” he posed. “Once parents are empowered with health reproductive information, they can also empower their children, but we don’t have to lose our moral values and allow this to happen in Rwanda.”