Sexual and reproductive health activists in Rwanda have called for changes in tackling teenage pregnancies in the country.
The calls followed a report from the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) indicating that 17,000 young girls aged 16-19 years were impregnated in 2016 alone.
“We had an assumption that adolescents are not sexually active but these numbers prove us wrong, and should in fact prompt us to adopt new approaches to dealing with this problem, if we are to address it,” said Dr. Aflodis Kagaba, a physician and human rights advocate.
According to human rights activists, it is time the country availed condoms to high schools to help students protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
“We should acknowledge that access to condoms is a human right and they should be availed to adolescents in secondary schools to avoid unwanted pregnancies,” added Tom Mulisa, another human rights activist.
This debate however remains taboo. Most school leaders and education policy makers have in the recent past expressed that they were not ready to embrace distribution of condoms in high schools and many religious groups opposed to use of modern birth control methods.
Jeanne Mwiliriza, the founder and co-ordinator of Tubahumurize, an association that helps socially and economically marginalised women in Rwanda, also opposes this approach citing her religious beliefs, advocating increased sexual and reproductive health education instead.
“The focus should be on providing accurate information on how to avoid unwanted pregnancies not only to these young women but also to grown-ups,” she said .
Despite social resistance, rights groups advocate removal of all legislative, economic, cultural, and religious barriers to young people in accessing modern birth control methods.
Youth friendly programmes
The law establishing medical professional liability insurance obliges a health professional who intends to provide healthcare services to a minor to inform their parent, representative or guardian and obtain their prior consent.
“This provision is limiting and discriminatory, because a minor seeking birth control services would not wish their parents to know,” Mr Kagaba said.
According to rights groups, the government ought to put in place sexual and reproductive health programmes that are youth friendly and which confronts the “stigma and discrimination associated with programmes in place.”
In the current setting, an adolescent who wants modern birth control methods has to seek services from health centres or from community health workers.
A health professional who spoke on condition of anonymity said people under 18 years only have access to condoms, unless they have already given birth.
“Adolescents will always fear to go to health centres or to community health workers asking for birth control pills because they fear this information will be passed on to their parents or guardians, but they would be comfortable seeking the same services from a special youth corner,” Mr Kagaba said.
On affordability, activists criticise the prices of emergency contraception pills.
“We wish these emergency pills were as affordable as painkillers, or even be availed for free, in relation to the state’s obligations to respect, promote, protect and fulfill human rights,” Mulisa added.
A single dose of morning after pill that is available over the counter costs Rwf11,000 ($13) on average.
The real cause of increase in teenage pregnancies in Rwanda is not yet known, but analysts blame the current schooling structure, mainly in 12 years basic education, in which school girls have to go to school every morning and go back home every evening, always meeting potential impregnators on their way.
The Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion announced that it plans to go after men who impregnate the young girls and force them to help in taking care of the babies.
Comprehensive Sexuality Education has been integrated in the new curriculum. In primary school, it is taught in Science and Elementary Technology, and Social Studies, while in secondary schools, it is in Biology and Health Sciences, General Studies and Communication Skills including History and Citizenship.