When she was impregnated at the age of 17, Alice Uwase (not real name) was a senior six candidate.
“At first, I didn’t even know that I was pregnant,” she says. “At that time I was in the middle of an abdominal workout challenge with my friends, at school,” she says.
She was in a boarding school.
She recalls: “For one week I had a weird feeling in my stomach but it wasn’t quite like cramps, since it didn’t particularly ache, I thought it might be my body reacting to my workouts.”
“One day I expected my cycle to start, since I have it all tracked, I missed it,” Uwase says. “I decided to buy a box of three home pregnancy tests, I was suspicious but wanted to be sure,” she says.
But she couldn’t gather the courage to do it. “I didn’t do it for days.”
She spent nights crying, missed classes and her performance dipped.
“One morning after showering I decided I needed to do the test, and it was positive,” she recalls. “I went straight to bed and started crying.”
“I had no idea what to do right at that moment,” she recalls. That was in March 2020.
A few days later, the government closed all schools shortly after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in the country.
“That only worsened my situation because I knew that I will have to go home and let my parents know before they could find out themselves.”
Uwase says that she called her boyfriend to inform him that she was pregnant for him.
But Uwase, from Munanira Cell, Nyakabanda Sector in Nyarugenge District, saw her life take a sharp turn when her 18-year-old boyfriend, a student from another school, denied responsibility for the pregnancy and ‘disappeared’ shortly after.
Terrified and lonely
She would later learn that his parents sent him to a relative’s home.
Uwase was lonely. She had not gathered the courage to inform her parents and yet needed someone to confide in.
“I decided to share it with my cousin,” she says. “But I was surprised to know that she already knew, apparently rumours about my situation had been going around.”
Then, she says, one morning my mother and three of her friends confronted her. They wanted to take her for a pregnancy test.
She was terrified.
Her cousin came along.
They got to the clinic and took a test.
“We used my cousin’s sample and it returned negative,” she says. She was not yet ready to let her mother know of the truth – at least not in the presence of her mother’s friends.
A few days later, Uwase says, she felt it was important that her mother knew about it. But her mother too was still suspicious and wanted another test.
“We went for another checkup without her friends and I wanted her to know, so obviously it returned positive,” she says. “As I expected, of course, it was hard for her to take.”
The doctor sensed that her mother was upset and advised her not to be too harsh or to do anything that could further complicate the situation.
The father learns about it later. He was mad at her. “My father shouted at me all the time, I broke down.”
Then her parents reckoned she had to terminate the pregnancy.
“They went to a doctor and said they wanted an abortion but the doctor advised against it because it was too risky,” she says.
But the father was determined, so he insisted they will have to visit a traditional healer and procure abortion.
“But I did not want to,” she says. Tension reigned.
“I was mistreated at home but I remained adamant.”
Welcome support system
One day, she says, she received a rare support system, besides her cousin.
“It was my former primary classmates,” she says, emotionally. “They paid me a visit and came with gifts.”
She used their support to get mutuelle health insurance.
A month later, Uwase gave birth to a son with the help of her cousin sister who stood by her side although. She texted her boyfriend to share the good news but no reply came.
A month after she gave birth, schools reopened. Her parents paid all the school fees, told her to go back to her boarding school at Ecole d’art de Nyundo.
“I was wondering who was going to take care of my son, but they told me that I should not worry about anything. I had no choice so I did what they said,” Uwase says.
At school, she was bullied and subjected to stigma, she says.
But, after week later, word reached the school administration that Uwase was a new mother. “They agreed to send me back home so I can go take care of the baby and return to school at a later date.”
Brother Barthazar Nsengiyumva, the headmaster of school, told The New Times that it was a surprise to find out that Uwase had given birth.
“It’s not something common here,” he says, adding that they will be open to receiving her back for the next academic year in September.
Uwase’s parents have yet to come to terms with what happened.
“I thought that after giving birth my parents would sort of calm down and accept me but it breaks my heart that they remain hostile, not even the child could soften their hearts, they are still bitter with me and still badmouth me,” she says.
Uwase is not alone.
According to the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, up to 19,701 girls across the country gave birth between January and December 2020. The number was even higher the previous year.
Globally, every year, nearly 16 million adolescent girls give birth, the majority of whom are adolescents. They are first-time mothers who face significant risks during pregnancy, including maternal death.
Most of them go through parenthood at such a young age alone.
Pregnancies among girls younger than 18 years of age have irreparable consequences, experts say. They observe that teen pregnancies violate the rights of girls, with life-threatening consequences in terms of sexual and reproductive health, and pose high development costs for communities in perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
In Rwanda, stillbirths and deaths in the first week of life are 50 per cent higher among babies born to adolescent mothers than among babies born to mothers in their 20s, according to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).
Aflodis Kagaba, the Executive Director at Health Development Initiative (HDI), reckons that “adolescents and young people need to be fully equipped with quality sexual reproductive health information.”
“They need to be empowered,” he told The New Times.
But focus should also be put on families, he says.
“There is a need to educate families to not subject these children to stigma and to forgive them,” he adds. “They need to encourage them instead, to be patient with them and to be more supportive.”
He also recalls that it’s unconstitutional to force pregnant girls out of school.
Teen percentages dropped from 38 per cent to 33 per cent over the last five years, according to Rwanda Demographic Health Survey 2019/2020 published by NISR.