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Impregnated by her uncle and left high and dry, teenaged mom finds renewed hope

MUNYAMYUMBA SECTOR, Rubavu District, Rwanda—“I was impregnated by my uncle, a brother to my mother who lived with us. He rented a house to hide me and promised to provide essentials but this lasted only for a short period. I returned home but I was rejected and sent away,” says Sandrine Uwimana, 18.

She was told that she was a curse to the family.

After giving birth, I [often] thought of killing my child [as I was] homeless and with no means to meet [our] basic needs. But with support, I was able to accept my child.

After giving birth, I [often] thought of killing my child [as I was] homeless and with no means to meet [our] basic needs. But with training, counselling and support from Imbuto Foundation, I was able to accept my child and life continued,” she says.

Sandrine is one 25 first-time young mothers whose stories are heart-breaking, but who have chosen to struggle on and make better choices going forward, with support from UNFPA through Imbuto Foundation.

The youngest among them is a 15-year-old girl who has a baby aged one year five months, while the oldest is 19 years old.

Since she started receiving support from Imbuto Foundation, Sandrine has become a peer support volunteer. She speaks to other girls about the importance of pursuing an education and avoiding teenage pregnancies, which can deprive them of opportunities for a brighter future and to become responsible citizens.

She also encourages young people in her community to reach out to the local health centre for accurate information on sexual and reproductive health.

Consequences of teenage pregnancy

Teenage pregnancy and early motherhood have an enormous, negative impact on girls’ education. When girls become young mothers they typically face discrimination, stigmatization and low income earning potential, all of which reinforces the cycle of poverty.

Most girls who become pregnant while still at school are forced to drop out. They are also more likely to become pregnant again if they are not given the right information and the services they need.

But with support, their futures can be put firmly back on track.

For Sandrine and for her group of 24 fellow young mothers, the assistance they have received from Imbuto Foundation, with UNFPA’s support, has given them renewed hope.

Together they have formed a cooperative and created a savings scheme, collecting funds from the activities they undertake individually. As at November 2017, they had collectively saved FRW 194,500 (Rwandan francs, about $222), and planned to use this to start a small project, with the aim of growing it financially.

Challenges faced by teen mothers

Undoubtedly the biggest hurdle that teen mothers face is stigma and discrimination in society – and from their own families. In terms of cultural traditions, in the past a girl who gave birth from home before marriage was considered ‘a curse’. Some still hold on to this cultural tradition and find it difficult to accept teenaged mothers in their midst.

Another huge stumbling block that teen mothers face is the refusal to include their babies’ births in the civil register, which effectively denies the child an official identity and other benefits, such as health insurance. Often, men responsible for teen pregnancies do not want the young mothers to register their babies, to avoid being held responsible for supporting them.

As a result, teen mothers want for their most basic needs. They tend to get little to no support from their families – or anyone else. Although they may attempt to work for others for a small payment, or to sell goods such as food, the income this generates is usually small compared to the needs of mother and baby.

After going through counselling, I started selling sugarcane on the main road to Rubavu town to earn a living, I [have] resorted to casual labour on construction sites.

Sandrine describes her experience of this: “After going through counselling, I started selling sugarcane on the main road to Rubavu town to earn a living. My earnings increased a little and [I] changed to selling second-hand clothing on the streets to avoid prostitution.” But sadly, her attempts to attract customers failed and she had to seek an income elsewhere. “I [have] resorted to casual labour on construction sites,” she says.

Of her group of 25 teenage mothers, 19 of them live alone in rented houses, which is risky if they can’t raise enough money to pay the rent. They might be forced into sex work to secure money for rent and their other essential needs.

UNFPA supports teenage mothers with services and knowledge

UNFPA, through Imbuto Foundation, supports first-time young mothers with the provision of adolescent sexual and reproductive health services and information through a trained health provider at Kigufi Health Centre. The sessions the girls attend here have provided them with the knowledge required to avoid unintended second pregnancies and prevent sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

They have become empowered to make the right choices in life to be able continue their income-generating activities.

A more holistic approach is required to support girls' rights and to empower them to avoid early pregnancy. This includes the provision of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for all young people. It also requires the building of gender-equitable societies by empowering girls, and engaging men and boys.

Measures must be put in place to ensure that adolescents have access to sexual and reproductive health information and youth-friendly health services that welcome them and facilitate their choices.

- Maureen Twahirwa