“If you catch HIV today you won’t die tomorrow.”
In many socially conservative African countries it’s one thing for a young, unmarried woman to be sexually active, but quite another for her family or community to know about it. Many of the local girls I’ve met here in Uganda, as well as in Rwanda and Kenya, shriek at the prospect of even hinting to their parents that they’ve had sex.
But with more and more adolescent females leaving their uneventful rural hometowns for the parties and romances that accompany university life in the city, maintaining this façade is becoming increasingly difficult. And there’s no bigger giveaway than returning home with a protruding belly and no husband to speak of.
“Pregnancy out of wedlock announces to the whole world that you’ve been immoral,” explains Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at Kampala’s Makerere University. “And the perception is that once you get pregnant, no one is going to marry you — you become unwanted property.”
Talking to students at Makerere, you get the sense there is no greater crime. “Society here looks at pregnancy in school as an abomination,” is how one student put it. “In Africa, getting pregnant before marriage is something forbidden,” comments another.
Pregnant students, they say, are considered ‘spoiled’ and ‘wasted’ and will not only face challenges in their love life, but will be ostracized by friends and can jeopardize the financial support of their parents — or worse. “Some parents are harsh,” comments one student. “They can even kill you.”
In faith-based academic institutions, getting pregnant is even grounds for dismissal. Earlier this month, six pregnant students at Kampala’s Bishop Barham University were suddenly removed from an examination and expelled because they were said to be compromising Christian values and morals.
Meanwhile, in many religious secondary schools, female students are forced to undergo a pregnancy test at the onset of every semester. “If she’s pregnant, she’s sent out immediately,” explains Julius Tukesiga, a monitoring and evaluation specialist at the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). “But most of the time, the girl will send herself away because of the stigma that accompanies being pregnant.”
University students in Uganda answer which is scarier: HIV or getting pregnant out of wedlock?
Consequently, despite being illegal and dangerous, many young women turn to abortions. According to an article that appeared in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper in July 2013, “27 out of every 100 deaths among adolescents are primarily due to unsafe abortions while 24 percent of women suffering from fistula are teenage mothers.”
Even more shocking to hear were students equating the consequences of getting pregnant with those of contracting HIV; eight out of 24 students I interviewed at Makerere believed getting pregnant puts students in an even more difficult position than having HIV.
“If you catch HIV today you won’t die tomorrow,” explains Nyanzi, unsurprised by the findings. “For young people, the immediate need is a good education in order to have a chance at a successful future.”
One of the obvious remedies to this problem would be for more sexually active women to use condoms or birth control. But in many parts of Africa, taking birth control before marriage is interpreted as a sign of impropriety. A lack of education on the subject has also led many local women to believe it produces cancers or can cause them to become infertile.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance sexual and reproductive health through research and education, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 24 percent of teenage girls get pregnant before the age of 19. And in Uganda, where the women have one of the highest fertility rates on the continent, the numbers are slightly higher.
Efforts are being made to compensate for this reality. A secondary school has been built specifically for girls who have been expelled on account of pregnancy, and it was encouraging to hear from a friend of mine that her government-sponsored education wasn’t compromised once she had to take a leave from school to give birth.
But unless attitudes change — both amongst young and old Africans — it’s unlikely that enough helping hands will be available to tackle such a sensitive and far-reaching issue.
Matthew Stein navigates unique and unfamiliar sex cultures at eroticroutes.com.