Denial of young people’s sexuality: A skewed approach to teenage pregnancy in Rwanda
Chantal Umuhoza

In Rwanda, recent statistics show there’s an alarming increase in teenage pregnancy. In 2011, 614 teenage pregnancies in a survey covering a number of schools were reported and in 2013, 26 girls ranging from 14 to 17 years of age were found pregnant in a single school. In 2016, about 17,000 teenage pregnancies , for girls 16 to19 years of age, were reported nationwide.

Efforts to address teenage pregnancies continue to focus on addressing the consequences and not the structural underlying causes of teenage pregnancy. The Ministry of Gender and Family recently announced punitive  measures against absentee partners for teenage mothers to force them to take  responsibility for their actions.

The overall debate continues to take a protectionist approach to teenage pregnancy i.e. assuming all young people below 18 have no agency and have no say in their sexuality and all they need is protection from “perpetrators”. There is an over-reliance on effective implementation of the Gender-Based Violence Law and child protection policy as main solutions. There’s complete silence on the need for young people’s SRH services in and out of schools. Accessibility of condoms in school continues to be a taboo and emergency contraception is still not included on the list of essential medicine subsides by the government of Rwanda.

The danger of not questioning the structural causes of teenage pregnancy makes prevention efforts of teenage pregnancy unsustainable and focuses attention mostly on the criminalization of “perpetrators”, who also include teenage girls’ boyfriends and not necessarily rapists. In a society that is both conservative and religious, young people's sexual rights are often denied and not tolerated and the blame is entirely shifted  onto the teenage mother.  Furthermore, the President of the Republic of Tanzania, recently said that teenage mothers have no place being in school under the justification that allowing pregnant girls to return to school can encourage other girls to also get pregnant. (More on Twitter via hashtag #StopMagufuli).

In a recent call for action by civil society organizations to bring the alarming rates of teenage pregnancies in Rwanda to the attention of policymakers, important issues were highlighted including lack of comprehensive sexuality education in school, issue of unreported and unpunished cases of defilement and lack of social-economic support of teenage mothers.  

Teenage pregnancy should be looked at with a multidimensional lens and from an interlinkages and intersectional approach. Teenage pregnancy is linked to gender inequalities as evidenced by persistent gender-based sexual violence and intolerance of girls’ sexuality compared to boys’ sexuality. It is also a class issue. A report by the Collectif des Ligues et Association de Défense des Droits de l'Homme au Rwanda shows that more than 50% of teenage mothers are from very poor families. Therefore, the provision of comprehensive social protection policies for the poorest families, efforts to combat stigma, and interventions that raise awareness and make information more accessible to young people - including through comprehensive sexuality education - are all a must. Providing these services for young people in and out of schools can in turn enable them to make informed and safe decisions and have control over their sexuality.

In Rwanda, the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion cannot deal with teenage pregnancy alone because it is not only about child protection but extends and interlinks with other aspects. Other ministries and sectors should understand teenage pregnancy as an issue that concerns them as well, these include but are not limited to education, legal and justice departments, health, specifically sexual and reproductive health and rights, finance and planning and local governance. Civil society organizations should also work together using the same lens and understand that punishing perpetrators and protection of minors are not comprehensive solutions for the prevention of teenage pregnancy.

This Our blog appears in South Feminist Voices and is tagged with Rwanda.