Gisagara (first name withheld) was in senior four when the country announced schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She, together with other students had to go back home and wait for the decision on when schools could reopen.
“ We first heard information about COVID-19 when we were to school and were briefed on how to behave to ensure we have no positive cases at school, days later, a decision to go back home was taken. We all packed our bags and went home,” narrates Gisagara.
The 16-year-old girl lives in Rwamagana district, Musha sector in Kabare cell. She says that she went home and the lockdown had already been imposed.
However, despite the lockdown, Gisagara started communicating with a man who was a neighbor to her family. Through phone conversation, they befriended. “As I stayed home in the lockdown, I received several calls from a man who was close to our home, he was a motorist and his business had also stopped, often called me so that I felt love towards him,” she says. “When the lockdown was eased, we could meet and talk, one day he invited me to his ghetto and we had sex, days later I missed my period and I realized that I was pregnant,” Gisagara says.
Gisagara says she tried to hide that she was pregnant. She feared that her mother could threaten her and was not sure what other neighbors including her colleagues could say.“When I tried to inform the man, he told me not to ever reveal that I slept with her and promised to offer any support I needed,” she says.
Days, later, my mother discovered that I was pregnant, I had signs both physical and emotional. The womb was already grown and it could be seen that I was pregnant,” she adds.
Unaware of what could be her future as a teen mother, Gisagara was determined to give birth and raise the kid amidst fear of how successful that could be. “I had depression as I was rejected, my mother could rarely talk to me for the next two or three months, the communication with the man was also cut and he relocated, I was lonely and that affected me so much,” Gisagara said as she fought tears that could be seen in her eyes.
Today, Gisagara is a teen mother of a four-month-old baby boy. She tries to breastfeed the baby and her mother supports her to get food and other basics. “But as a single mother, I face a lot of challenges, sometimes I don’t have enough breastmilk to feed the baby, I also don’t additional nutrition a kid needs to grow, I am not sure my kid will be as wealth as he could be if I had full support,” she says.
For months, Gisagara has not heard of the man who impregnated her. She thinks relocated elsewhere and is hiding there. The motorbike the man used to drive was rented and the man was jobless when he left. “I suspect he fled justice because my mother had filed a case to local leaders, maybe he was scared that he could be arrested and face justice,” she says.
Gisagara does not think resuming studies is something that would happen soon. “My dream is to go back to school and complete A ‘level,” she says. “But I am not sure when that could happen as I have a toddler I cannot leave alone. Besides, it requires more means that I don’t have now,” she adds.
Gisagara is one of 19,701 young girls who carried unwanted pregnancies only in 2020, according to figures from the Ministry of Health as provided by an official from the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion.
An increasing number annually
The number of teen pregnancy cases has continued to grow over the years and activists have called on concerted efforts to avert the trend. According to officials figures, 17,849 cases of teen pregnancies were recorded in 2016 and increased to 17,337 and 19,832 in 2017 and 2018 respectively. In 2019, cases of teen pregnancies increased to 23,628 according to statistics conducted by the Ministry of Health.
That means that over 81,000 cases of unwanted pregnancies were recorded just in four years, leaving thousands of young girls out of school. While there are no guidelines to prevent pregnant girls to continue with studies, very few can continue with studies after they get pregnant. Others like Gisagara can’t go back to school until at least the baby is grown up.
There still a challenge also of where and who will take care of the baby now that the father has run away and there is no hope that he will avail himself to support the young mother.
Gisagara hope she will return to school after the baby turns two. She hopes to enroll to a nearby 12-year-basic education though she was enrolled in a boarding school.
“COVID-19 has also affected me so much because my mother lost her job as the company she worked with terminated contract and yet I counted in her,” Gisagara says calling for any support from local leaders.
This, according to experts is due to various factors. Such factors include stigma, physical weakness as a result of pregnancy, and harassment by parents, teachers and school managers among others.
Hunt on defilers
The government has put in more efforts through various campaigns to fight defilement.
For instance, the public is encouraged to denounce any Gender Based Violence especially that targeting teenagers by breaking the silence. Such efforts were for instance observed in Gatsibo district which recently launched the manhunt against men who are accused of defiling and impregnating teenagers. The district officials say they have a long list of 500 men who fled justice and should be searched and arrested to face justice.
According to Mayor, the district, together with security organs had arrested 13 people just in the first week of May and the search was ongoing to ensure more are arrested.“We are committed to following up and arrest those accused of impregnating teen girls in concerted efforts to ensure that those involved are brought to book,” said Richard Gasana, the Gatsibo district mayor. “If they are not arrested, they keep committing the same crime or more criminals increase as they see that those who committed crimes go scot-free,” he added. He said that the defilers could be arrested in the shortest possible period.
In a bid to support GBV victims, the government has established Isange One Stop Centre to attend to victims including teen girls by providing medical, legal, and psychological support.
The centre is Based in Kacyiru District Hospital and managed by Rwanda Investigation Bureau.
The most affected victims are girls aged between 5 and 18 years, consisting of up to 73 percent of the GBV cases received, 16 percent of the victims are under five, while those above 18 were 11 percent, according to available figures from the centre.
However, as the centre supports GBV victims who report on time, some victims end up not getting the support it provides due to low reporting or delays in reporting GBV cases.
While there are no figures indicating GBV victims especially teen mothers, who contracted sexually transmitted diseases, it is likely that teen mothers fall victims of Sexually transmitted diseases due to stigma and cultural norms that prevent them from getting antenatal care services where such diseases can be detected.