It was a big concern for our staff. What if an ASAH girl becomes pregnant? In school and outside of school, our girls have been taught about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and have been counseled on how to protect themselves. African children often sleep in a single room with their parents and other children) and they know from a young age how pregnancy occurs. Our older students have witnessed the plight of pregnant friends who were quickly married off at 14, 15, 16. They have witnessed the difficult lives of these friends. Their schooling stopped abruptly, they left their families to move into a new family situation, and they are often sharing limited resources with other wives and their children. Still, teenagers in Africa, like teenagers everywhere, do not always follow the counsel of their parents and teachers, or recognize the cautionary tales presented by the plight of their friends.
ASAH is not an orphanage. Our students are orphans entrusted to our care, but we do not have legal custody. During term breaks we provide transportation, when possible, so the girls can visit their extended families and guardians. In Uganda, the guardians are spread far and wide in many different refugee camps in Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya, so in some cases we cannot get them there.
At the beginning of August 2015, one of our girls turned 14 and became pregnant that same month while visiting her guardian at a Ugandan refugee camp. I’ll call her Augusta.
Augusta didn’t know she was pregnant until a few months later when she returned to ASAH for school. She complained of pain, and our matron took her to the clinic. She learned she is pregnant and due in April.
Our unwritten policy was reviewed, meaning notes of conversations and emails with staff which confirmed that we have no particular rights to determine her destiny from here. It is up to her family and the young man’s family. We arranged for her to take her end-of-the year tests early, and returned her home.
When the 25-year-old man learned the news, he fled, leaving behind two other young wives and four children. Augusta’s relatives tracked him down and attacked him with pangas – a machete-type weapon. He was badly injured and spent weeks or months in the hospital recovering. He had to drop out of school – he was in Level 6 – which is the 6th year of the secondary system here. They have a seven-year primary school system, then four years of secondary. Some go on to two years of upper secondary – kind of a community college – and from there some few go to university.
When we first arrived in Uganda in the spring of 2014, I was contacted by the US founder of another program in Uganda – Child Voice International. Child Voice began as a rescue and rehabilitation program for child soldiers, but has since started a program that works with vulnerable girls. The girls must not be homeless and must have family support to qualify. Most of them have a child or two, but are not capable of supporting themselves.
The program lasts 18 months. They accept the young girl or woman and her child or children, providing child care and early childhood education. The girls learn basic skills and are introduced and can become proficient in various vocational trades. They also work on the site in agriculture, fish farming, raising rabbits and other things – and they are paid. The money is saved in a personal account available to the girl at the end of the training. In addition, once she has completed the course work and chosen a trade, she may apply for a microloan to start a small business. Child Voice stays in touch with the families to ensure they are ready to receive her when she returns home, and follows up with visits to ensure success.
Child Voice has agreed to accept Augusta into their program immediately. They will provide for medical care and support for her during the last few months of her pregnancy and her child birth. They will teach this 14-year-old girl how to care for her baby, and then assist her with child care so that she can join the learning program along with other young girls and women in her situation. At the completion of the program, they will help her reintegrate with her family and her husband and follow up to ensure she succeeds.
We talked to Augusta and she is enthusiastic about joining. Her family has agreed. Her husband is grateful she will have this opportunity. This is a wonderful solution to a very difficult life situation. I will see Augusta along with other ASAH girls at the camps in Adjumani area next week. And we will follow her through her experience at Child Voice.
Giving thanks today for all the wonderful people in the world who offer a hand to those in need.