How 21-year-old Umuhoza is changing lives of teenage mothers

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She is in the news not because of her beauty, lifestyle or the crown she won, but her ability to lend a helping hand to other young women.

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Sharifah Umuhoza

The 21-year-old emerged 4th runner-up as well as Miss Popularity in the Miss Rwanda 2016 beauty pageant. Meet Sharifa Umuhoza, the beauty who is transforming the lives of vulnerable young girls, especially, teenage mothers. She is a typical example of beauty and brains. Having realised that one of the biggest problems young girls have to deal with is teenage pregnancy, Umuhoza set out to face the challenge at all costs.

For her, joining the Miss Rwanda contest in 2016 wasn’t all about the crown; she also wanted to get a platform to implement her dream project.

“I did dream of joining the Miss Rwanda competition, but when I found out that it can actually put my project into action, I was motivated even more. What we can do as the youth is to help others who are facing hardships to get out of isolation and build their future because so many of them have the potential to be great and contribute to the development of our country,” Umuhoza says.

Her foundation mostly equips teen mothers with vocational training in things such as handicraft, weaving, tailoring and sewing. Their association, Icyerekezo, My value my vision, aims at reminding the girls about their value and their ability to take charge of their destiny.

Before she started the initiative, she had to reach out to the girls to find out the root cause of this problem, because this way, she believed she would help those already facing the problem and also, prevent others from falling in the same ditch.

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The girls during vocational training. 

“I met some of the girls who faced the problem and they told me that they got pregnant as a result of the harsh conditions they were living in; men took advantage of them with empty promises of school fees and the like,” she notes.

Aside from the skills, the girls also find solace from their interactions at the association and with this, they get to understand that what they are going through isn’t the end of the world, and that there is still hope for the future.

“I thought of doing this for the girls because I wanted them to know that no matter what happened to them, they can still take charge of their destiny and be of importance towards the development of the country, especially now that we are promoting Made in Rwanda,” she says.

She started off with helping girls in Musanze, her hometown, but also plans on expanding to other parts of the country, however, a few challenges still hold her back.

“We still have a challenge of getting enough materials to use and also, we have few sewing machines, to be precise, only 12, so the girls have to share. We also have a small study room which was provided by the district,” Umuhoza says.

She adds that some girls fail to come for training because they have no one to look after the kids when they come to study.

“Many girls don’t come to study because they don’t have anyone to watch over their babies, and at times, they have to breastfeed them. The other challenge is paying their teachers because the funds are still low, I mostly have to sacrifice and cut down on my expenses to see that the project grows,” Umuhoza says.

The foundation is helping more than 80 girls and the first group received their certificates last month after six months of training. The second group started on March 6 this year with the aim to promote Made in Rwanda products.

Umuhoza hopes to continue helping the youth in general for years to come. She hopes that the foundation will have outlets not only in Rwanda, but other countries.

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Some of the products made by the girls.  

“Our plan is to have a big presence like in three years, not only in Rwanda, but in different countries that sell Made in Rwanda products. I also want to have a technical vocational school that will help the youth pursue further studies and I also plan to create a savings cooperative for those who already finished studying at Icyerekezo Association so that they can be able to sustain themselves,” she says.

Teen mothers share their story

18-year-old Jeanine Ujeneza testifies that her life changed for the better after she became a part of the foundation. Her life seemed hopeless after she gave birth but this all changed.

“I can now accept the choice of the path I took in my life, it has not been easy but what I have learnt from this initiative has helped me a lot, especially in shaping me into the strong woman who is eager to take on life that I am today,” she says.

“I now know that I am the only person who can take charge of my life and not just let circumstances decide my fate, and even though the money we get is not that much, our lives are changing drastically,” Ujeneza adds.

Ujeneza says that they are gaining useful skills that are already shaping their future.

23-year-old Clementine Nikwigize says that the isolation that comes one’s way after giving birth at a tender age can destroy them.

“Most girls are neglected by friends and the man responsible for the pregnancy, or worse, your own family, which only makes matters worse.

“But being here helps us a lot, we talk and confide in each other and get the courage to move on with life.You feel like you still have value. We are now lucky we are getting these skills and I know that we are going to be able to earn ourselves a decent living,” Nikwigize says.

Alice Ufitumubyeyi has just enrolled at the foundation, but she is certain that her life is yet to improve.

“I have just joined, but according to what I have seen my colleagues attain, I am positive that I will make it too. Life hasn’t been easy but this is all going to change. Girls getting pregnant is something complicated, this is why I wish for different stakeholders to come up and promote sex education, this way, the vice will be prevented,” Ufitumubyeyi says.

For Alliance Twizerimana, young girls get pregnant because of reasons that range from poverty, issues at home, to careless behaviour.

She suggests that if more people like Umuhoza come up and focus on the prevention of this problem, more positive results will be achieved.

“I think the government can bring up initiatives such as this, and train the youth on the basic skills that can help keep them safe,” she says.

Twizerimana commends the foundation, saying that it is important because it is helping them in two ways; socially and economically.

How big is the issue of teenage pregnancy?

Teenage pregnancy is not just a health issue, but, a human rights violation which affects society at large. The vice not only undermines young women’s ability to exercise their rights, for instance in health and education, it also prevents them from realising their potential.

According to the Rwanda Demographic Health Survey 2014 to 2015, 7 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 have begun childbearing: 6 per cent have had a live birth, and 2 per cent were pregnant at the time of the interview. The proportion of teenagers who have begun childbearing rises rapidly with age, from 1 per cent at age 15 to 21 per cent at age 19.

Teenagers with no education and those in the lowest wealth quintile tend to start childbearing earlier than other teenagers. Teenagers in Kigali and Eastern Province are about twice as likely to start childbearing earlier than their counterparts, according to the survey.

Erica Matasi, a children’s activist, says that when a girl is in her teen years, a lot of caution has to be taken because at this stage, they are just discovering who they are and can be easily influenced by peer pressure.

She says that though efforts in preventing early pregnancy are necessary, more needs to be done for those who already gave birth at an early age.

“These girls are isolated by the community yet what should be done is to help them look out for their future. It is this discrimination they receive from the communities and families that make these girls get pregnant again and again,” Matasi says.

She, therefore, calls upon society to be of support to the girls because this way, they will be able to regain confidence and search for their purpose in life.

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