Once again, a heated debate has placed Rwandans on different sides of the fence. The topic of discourse is proposed legislation to lower the age of access to family planning contraceptives from 18 to 15 years. The aim of the legislation is to curb the rising teenage pregnancy in the country. According to official statistics, pregnancies among girls below 18 years of age rose by 13.4% from 17,337 in 2017 to 19,832 in 2018.
Teenage pregnancy comes with its challenges. The government believes that preventing teens from becoming parents can forestall those challenges. However, many people believe that the new proposal contained in the draft law that okays the lowering of contraceptive access age will be counterproductive.
“I’m not sure this will solve the problem,” President Paul Kagame said in a response to a journalist at a press conference. “I think it will instead affect these teens psychologically. They will take it as if they are being given the go-ahead, now that they’ll be having something to protect them.”
A better solution, the president believes, is holding perpetrators accountable. “We should fight teenage pregnancy, by first agreeing that it’s a problem. And work on reducing it to the minimum as we also hold the people involved accountable.”
The scourge of teenage pregnancy in Rwanda
Teenage pregnancy is a huge challenge among developing nations. In Rwanda, there has been a progressive rise in the percentage of teenage pregnancy since 2005. This is according to the Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR). However, the figure is higher in some regions than in others. Speaking on the issue, the Executive Director of Health Development Initiative, Aflodis Kagaba said,
“Yes, young adults below 18 are required to go with their parents to access contraceptives. Yet, these are the most vulnerable when it comes to unwanted pregnancies. I would like to tell you that we are changing that because we found it inconveniencing.”
Teenage pregnancy makes it difficult for these young mothers to find work. Consequently, they live in poverty. Sometimes, they are stopped from going back to school. Those that are unlucky are alienated from their families or communities. According to a 2018 report, 7% of Rwandan teenagers between 15 and 19 years had their first sexual intercourse by 15 years. Also, as high as 88% of single girls who are sexually active do not use contraception.
In an interview with The New Times, a lecturer at Rwamagana’s campus of the University of Rwanda, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Miriam Batamuriza, highlights the dangers of teenage pregnancy. According to Batamuriza, anemia rises with pregnancy as a result of poor nutrition. There is also the unavoidable obstetric consequences. Even after birth, the children and their young parents risk malnutrition unless there is an intervention.
Divergent opinion on the proposed regulation
The New Times weighed in on people’s opinions on the matter. There were parents, students, teachers, and civil societies that were on both sides of the fence. One of the advocates of the law is a mother of three, Abayisenga Celine Nyiramundanikure. She said,
“In the current situation, Rwanda as a country does not increase in size but the population does. Teenagers are not the best at making decisions and sometimes end up pregnant. I think by granting them access, they’ll have an alternative.”
Like the president, some people believe that cutting back on the contraceptive access age will not stop teenage pregnancy. Rather, it will encourage younger girls to become sexually active. Speaking with The New Times, a senior five student at Lycee De Kigali, Benie Unwali said,
“I think the approach can cause some of the minors to engage in sex even when they had no plans to do so. Because they will be given the right to do so.”
While echoing how the new legislation will encourage teenagers to be sexually active, the Director of Rwanda Women’s Network, Maria Balikungeli brings in a fresh perspective to the argument, viz-a-viz making a dent in Rwanda’s culture.
“Do they even know the long-term effects of using them (contraceptives) at their age? I think more emphasis should be put on educating them on the abstinence measures, as it is in our culture.”