Emeline Mukamana gave birth to her first born when she was 17 years old but she confesses that she had her first sexual encounter at 15. At that age, she didn’t know much about reproductive health and use of contraceptives.
“I remember, I found out I was four months pregnant and didn’t know what to do,” she narrated.
Her boyfriend, who was also 17 years, couldn’t help because he didn’t have a job or any source of income. She was forced to raise her baby with the help from her parents.
However, her ordeal went from bad to worse when three years later, Mukamana got pregnant again, by another boyfriend after her first one left her.
“That was the moment I realized that I should go for birth control even if I was not married,” she says.Annoyed that she had become pregnant again, her parents chased her away.
For her and other girls of the same age, it is ‘taboo’ for unmarried girls to use contraception especially the morning after pill because society tends to judge them harshly.
“When neighbours find out that you use contraceptives when you’re still a girl, they start calling you a prostitute which is a shame to you and your family,” she says.
For now she no longer worries much about what some in her community say about her, as she is keen on preventing a third unwanted pregnancy.
Parents don’t support it
Gerard Sekamana, a parent from Burera District said he doesn’t understand why unmarried girls, especially teenagers, should use contraceptives.
“Teenage girls should not be sexually active. Actually they have to remain virgins until they get married,” he adamantly says.
Esperance Mukamanzi, a mother of three teenage girls is more open to contraception but advises girls to use it when they are 18 years and above.
“We parents refuse to face the truth. Our children don’t live the same way we lived in the past. Our society was more conservative while today the youth live another life. They have technology, they have phones, they have internet and communication is quicker and easier. How would you expect the same attitude and behaviours?” she asks.
Culture and legal restrictions
Pascaline Umulisa, the Executive Coordinator of Girls Guide in Rwanda says reproductive health which is taught in schools is not enough and that young girls need to know how to prepare themselves at every stage of their lives.
“Sometimes we say we have good health services but these children don’t have access on them. For example, a teenage girl can’t go to the health centre to ask for reproductive information or services whenever she wants. Most of the times, she is asked her why she needs the services at a tender age, and sometimes, they don’t get it,” she says.
Ellen Nomugisha, the Director of African Youth and Adolescent Network said some health providers refuse to give reproductive health services to adolescents claiming it is illegal.
“I work with teenagers every day; I know what they go through. When they want condoms from even youth friendly centres, they don’t get them. They are told to bring their parents in order to have access to them,” she said.
Nomugisha said given the nature of the Rwandan society, it is nearly impossible to find parents who can help their children get contraceptives.
“There is a need to help our society to change this mindset because what is clear is that there is a challenge of teenage pregnancies and it has to be addressed,” she said.
However, Mussa Claver Mbonabucya, the Director of Rwampara Health Centre, refutes claims that youth are not given contraception at health centers.
“When they come, we first talk and show all possible means of prevention and the risks they may face if they undergo artificial birth control. We even tell them that it is not ideal to become sexually active at certain age. However, when someone has crossed the line, it is very hard to convince them to stop. That is why we proceed with telling them that there is another way to avoid possible negative effects”.
Condoms are put in hidden and accessible places like in toilets in order to help people especially youth to have access on them. The decision was made after realising that people still fear to get condoms in public places.
Article 7 of the law N° 21/2016 of 20/05/2016 relating to reproductive health stipulates that every person having attained the majority age has the right to decide for oneself in relation to human reproductive health issues, subject to provisions of other laws.
Searching for a common ground
Dr Diane Gahumba, the Minister for Health, says every parent or guardian has the duty to discuss human reproductive health with their children.
“We advised them to visit the nearest health center if they get abused so as to get tested for any STDs or HIV, and also receive some pills to prevent pregnancy. This is what we should do, more sensitisation, so that they are aware of the available services to help them prevent the effects”.