“Unprepared for motherhood”: stories of stigma among Rwandan adolescent mothers

Unwanted pregnancies are on the rise among Rwandan girls, posing a serious challenge. Teenage mothers’ current reality is heartbreaking. They are frequently discriminated against in society; they are judged, labeled, and have limited access to reproductive health, rights, and education, which puts them at higher risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. When a young mother is abandoned, ignored, or rejected, it has a direct detrimental impact on her life and that of her child(ren), but the ripple effect can also be felt in the future growth of a country. Reducing Teen pregnancy is a priority for the Rwandan government as well as development partners.

The majority of these teen mothers rely on family members for support. Mistreatment and abuse are frequently associated with this, negatively impacting their mental health and well-being.

Experts claim that pregnancies in girls under the age of 18 have irreversible implications. They point out that adolescent births violate girls’ rights, have life-threatening repercussions in terms of sexual and reproductive health, and cost communities a lot of money in terms of development, prolonging the poverty cycle.

According to Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics, infant deaths and deaths in the first week of life are 50% greater among babies born to adolescent mothers than among babies born to mothers in their 20s (NISR).

Origin of the issue

The ‘culture of silence’ has emerged as one of the major factors contributing to the surge in teen pregnancies. Because of family ties, fear of social alienation, and financial incentives, some families continue to cover up for the adults involved in impregnating adolescent girls. The causes of teen pregnancy are clearly a complex and interconnected set of issues that necessitate multilevel and multi-component remedies.

Thousands of adolescent girls drop out of school or face discrimination or exclusion from schools each year in Africa because they are pregnant or have become mothers. Hundreds of thousands of girls became pregnant as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to reports, while schools were closed, sexual violence in communities increased, and protective systems for girls remained weak.

What can be done

Supporting comprehensive sexuality education in schools and improving youth-friendly services can help to address these issues. Governments, civil society organizations, and communities themselves must collaborate to address issues ranging from education to service provision, as well as the entrenched cultural norms that limit access and uptake.  Addition work to prevent and combat gender-based violence is equally crucial. Families must be taught to forgive and not stigmatize these children.

Ronald Kimuli