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As the clock ticks, adolescents remain a ticking bomb

THE first time she saw the blood four months ago, she ran to her mother in fear, but her mother assured her that for her gender, it was a normal thing, and she called it ‘monthly period’.

She told her that because she had reached puberty, she should expect to see the flow of blood every month, and went ahead and introduced her to the world of sanitary towels. And just like clockwork, the flow came every month afterwards, and because she already knew what to do, she never went back to her mother for advice.

But this month, the 15-year-old Sarah Mwanga felt that something was not right, because the blood did not flow as expected, and the month was almost over.

When another month came and nothing happened, she collected her courage and wit and approached her mother, and explained that it was almost two months and the ‘monthly period’ did not show up…….when her mother took her to the nearest clinic in Nkasi District, Rukwa Region, her fears were confirmed, her daughter was pregnant.

“Years ago, it was unheard of for young girls as young as 14 years to be involved in sexual relationships, but over the years, adolescents are more and more engaged in sexual relationships,” says Misanna Kwangura, the Nkasi District Executive Director.

He says that from 2019 up to now, 38 secondary school and 24 primary school girls became pregnant, which he confesses that the number, although declining, is still high.

Mr Kwangura says that to tackle the problem in the district, they have put in place mechanisms where parents of young girls who become pregnant face the wrath of the law, which includes going behind bars.

He says that this has somehow helped in the fight against teenage pregnancies, although they are still faced with several challenges, including the victims lying on the identity of the culprits and parents colluding with the culprits.

“Years back the problem was massive, because in one year we could receive almost 70 cases of pregnant secondary school girls, while in primary schools there were almost 50 cases, which means that we are winning the fight, gradually,” he says.

The DED says that through a project implemented by Youth Education through Sports Tanzania (YES TZ) and funded by Plan International in Rukwa Region, they are optimistic that they will soon eliminate teenage pregnancies and early marriages.

Jesca Lwiza, the Nkasi Science Education Officer, on her part says that in 2016, 78 secondary school girls and four primary school girls were reported pregnant, while the following year 74 secondary and 36 primary school girls were found pregnant, while in 2018, 70 secondary school girls and 32 primary school girls were reported pregnant, and last year 72secondary school girls and 28 primary school girls were reported pregnant.

She says that some years back it was not easy to get proper data on the number of school girls who dropped out due to pregnancy, but the district put in place some mechanisms to identify the cases, which were earlier not reported.

“These girls after getting pregnant, the schools were not aware of the situation, therefore in their record books they just indicated that the pupil or student absconded from school without giving any details,” she says.

Ms Navina Justine Mutabazi, the Project Coordinator says that because of increasing cases of teenage pregnancies and child marriages in Rukwa Region, YES TZ is implementing the project in three districts of Nkasi, Sumbawanga and Kalambo.

She says that through the ‘Eliminate Child Marriages’ programme, they are working closely with parents, guardians and teachers in schools to empower and raise awareness on the importance of availability of Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) services to adolescents.

She says that youth empowerment can curb the rate of poverty to a large level, saying that one of the keys to empowering the youth is with skill development, and added that when a youth is equipped with essential skills, he or she can utilize them to feed, assist others, and even invest for future use, aiding the nation economically.

“Most of these girls, after getting pregnant, are forced to be married by the culprits, which spells the end of their school life,” she says.

Ms Navina says that the project to eliminate child marriages and teenage pregnancies is being implemented in three districts in Rukwa Region, covering 33 wards and 116 villages, where in Nkasi District it is implemented in 13 wards with a total of 46 villages.

Florah John Mwananzila, a resident of Nkomolo ward in Nkasi District and one of the beneficiaries, lauds YES TZ initiative in tackling teen pregnancies and marriages, saying that with the campaigns conducted by the organization, it is likely to bear fruits.

She says that in most cases, parents need to be educated on their responsibilities, which includes communicating with their children about the dangers of engaging in sexual activities at a tender age.

“But for the parents and guardians to know how to communicate this information to their children, they first and foremost need to be educated on how to go about it, because some of them are not aware of how to behave with their children, and this is what YES TZ is doing, imparting knowledge to parents, guardians, teachers and the community” she says.

Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971 sets the minimum marriage age for girls at 15 with parental consent, and 18 for boys. It permits the marriage of 14-year-old children when a court is satisfied that special, although unspecified, circumstances exist.

However, in a landmark 2016 decision, a Tanzanian high court ruled these provisions unconstitutional, and directed the government to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 years for both girls and boys.

This ruling followed a legal challenge by an organization advocating for girls’ right to education in Tanzania, where their petition argued that the Marriage Act violated girls’ fundamental rights to equality, dignity, and access to education, and contravened Tanzania’s Law of the Child Act.

According to Plan International, who are financing the project, adolescent pregnancies remain a major contributor to maternal and child mortality, with complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth being the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 globally.

Pregnant girls and adolescents also face other health risks and complications due to their immature bodies, because babies born to younger mothers are also at greater risk. Adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa have one of the highest birth rates compared to adolescents in the other regions of the world, accounting for a significant proportion of the overall fertility in many countries in the region.

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