KIGALI, Oct. 22 (Xinhua) -- As a mother who got pregnant at 16, a Rwandan teen identified only as Yvonne to conceal her identity, was eager that her peers can easily access contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Yvonne learned she was pregnant, more than one month after she missed her periods during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and schools shutdown in 2020.
On learning she was pregnant, her stepmother expelled her from home, saying she was spoiled and could spoil her children.
With her predicament, Yvonne ran away with the help of her boyfriend who later denied the pregnancy and abandoned her. Like hundreds of thousands of young girls nationwide, Yvonne was not able to complete her secondary education.
While her story is shared by many and draws ire among activists, the solution to addressing teenage pregnancies in Rwanda seems to be complex.
The majority of Rwandan legislators during a plenary session this week voted against a private members' bill that sought to amend the 2016 law on human reproductive health, which would have given girls aged 15 and above the green light to access contraceptives.
The rejection of the bill has become a talking point because of the growing problem of teenage pregnancy in the East African country.
Some legislators cited cultural considerations and faith while others said contraceptives would corrupt the moral values of young girls.
Such claims, however, only served to further muddy the waters around the controversial bill.
"Allowing access to contraceptives as the first-line choice for young girls wishing to engage in sexual activities would seem prudent," Yvonne told Xinhua, asking "so what solutions are the MPs providing?"
"I'm troubled about this."
Reports indicate that teens as young as 14 years of age are sexually active, hence the need to equip them with knowledge about contraception in case they choose to engage in sexual activities.
Rwandan gender activist Donatha Gihana, however, said that even if the bill had been passed it would not address the problem of teenage pregnancy. "But before we rush into girls' access to contraceptives, where are the men who impregnate these girls," she asked.
Gihana has come across cases, where teenage girls after producing do not disclose the fathers of their babies, which she described as strange. "I don't think access to contraceptives can alone address the problem of teenage pregnancy. I think it's important to look at a comprehensive approach rather than narrowing down the solution to one."
"Access to contraceptives to me is not the problem. We need to address the issue of teenage pregnancy in a more comprehensive way. To me, with or without contraceptives the problem of teenage pregnancy will continue unless the root causes are addressed," said Gihana.
Gihana believes there is even a lack of awareness around contraceptives, whereby in villages many girls are not aware of the different birth control methods.
"Access to contraceptives would perhaps provide a solution to only a small percentage of girls in Kigali who have the means to buy, yet rural girls bear the big problem of teenage pregnancy. We are talking about the majority of girls in rural areas who don't even have easy access to pharmacies. We need a national approach that speaks to all teenagers," she added.
Child pregnancies in Rwanda are linked partly to growing gaps in parent-child communication, limited access to sexual reproductive health information, and poverty.
At least 23,544 children were born to teen mothers in 2019, according to official statistics.
On average 20,000 teens are impregnated annually, with 23,000 having been impregnated last year.
Other Rwandans, though, praised parliament for rejecting the bill, arguing that contraceptives are not suitable for teens.
Among those is Sheila Mugisha, a nurse and mother of two teenage girls, who said it would be wrong to give teenagers contraceptives. "It would be worrying for a 15-year-old to think of which kind of contraception is best for them since there are many different contraceptive methods on the market," she said.
In Rwanda, the consent age is 18, but the legal age for marriage is 21.
The bill had been tabled before the Chamber of Deputies by a group of five legislators.
Gamariel Mbonimana, one of the lawmakers, said they drafted the bill thinking it would address the challenge of the high number of teenage pregnancies in the country and their research found out that in some countries children as old as 13 years or 12 years of age have access to contraceptives.
While underlining that addressing the problem of teenage pregnancies requires the role of fathers, mothers, guardians, and the community, Gihana believed that citing culture and faith to deny girls access to contraceptives is a lame excuse because "some aspects of culture have been overridden by modernity or technology."
"Even with amazing policies and programs the household and family, where girls live, need to have discussions on sexual reproductive health. We cannot stop teenage pregnancy without the roles of the families and community." ■