Silvie Bugonza* was barely 16 when she became pregnant. A hardworking student at Budahunga communal school, in northern Burundi’s Kirundo Province, Bugonza had dreams of working with the United Nations to help children frequently displaced during war. Instead, she was expelled from school because of her pregnancy, her dreams crushed. Now 19, the young mother wakes up early to feed and bathe her daughter. Then she straps the girl onto her back as she marches through dew-laden grass to fetch water.
She isn’t alone. Bugonza is part of a largely ignored social epidemic wrecking the lives of young girls and women across Burundi. Perched on rolling mountains and plateaus, the Central African country slightly smaller than Maryland has one of the highest teen fertility rates in the region — 50 percent higher than neighboring Rwanda. That is translating into an increasing number of teenage pregnancies. Burundi’s Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) showed that 8 percent of adolescent girls were pregnant in 2017, up from 7 percent in 2010–11.
I wish I could go back to school.
Silvie Bugonza, a teenage mother expelled from school
But that’s only part of the problem. Burundi’s high rate of teenage pregnancies is increasingly finding company in another disturbing trend — girls leaving school because of pregnancies. Across the country, more than 12,000 schoolgirls are estimated to have dropped out of school due to pregnancy between 2009 and 2015, according to data from Burundi’s Ministry of Education. Once out of school, they’re even more vulnerable. The teenage conception rate in Burundi among young uneducated girls (23 percent) is almost four times the number (6 percent) for those with secondary or higher education, the data shows. And the challenges aren’t a rural phenomenon. Bujumbura, the capital, has a teenage pregnancy rate of 12 percent — a figure that climbs further to 15 percent for Ngozi, the country’s second-largest city. Though some young mothers opt out of school simply to manage newborns, many others like Bugonza are expelled or suspended from school in a conservative nation where out-of-wedlock pregnancies are a social taboo. Either way, these pregnancies mean an early end to hopes and dreams of a better future.
“There’s nothing good about being a mother,” says Bugonza. “I wish I could go back to school.”
In Mpanda village, which neighbors Bugonza’s hamlet, 18-year-old Lydia Minani* is idly lying on an old mattress, cuddling her baby as mild rain sprinkles on the flimsy tin roof of her shack. On the walls, pieces of cardboard are tacked up on the crumbling mud wall to give the baby some warmth, as a torn curtain hanging over the window blows in the wind. Minani was suspended from Gahinga secondary school in 2015 after she became pregnant. Her father accuses her of compromising their family values.
Bugonza lives with a supportive aunt now — but she too believes family taboos were responsible for her predicament. Her mother, she says, never spoke to her openly about sex and protection. That lack of education about sex and reproductive health is a key contributor to the current crisis, suggests Georges Gahungu, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) agency representative in charge of programs in Burundi. “Many girls who become pregnant don’t know their menstrual cycles,” he says.
While limiting education and career prospects, teenage pregnancies also expose girls to often fatal childbirth complications, say health experts. “Underage girls who become pregnant in their teens are twice as likely to die during childbirth,” says Jeanne Niyongabo, a gynecologist and obstetrician based in Bujumbura.
At the root of the crisis is a deeply patriarchal social structure, where girls — like Minani — often face rejection from their families when they become pregnant, says local residents and experts. “Girls do not have the power to make decisions about their health and life,” says Philippe Ntahombaye, professor of anthropology at the University of Burundi. Many teenage mothers are often forced into marriage, especially in rural areas — suggesting a deeply ingrained stigma around early pregnancy, says Ntahombaye.
To curb spiraling teen pregnancies, Burundi’s government and international organizations have launched multiple initiatives to disseminate education on sex and reproductive health. In 2016, the country’s Ministry of Education launched a Zero Pregnancies at School campaign jointly with the UNFPA to ensure that “no girl gets pregnant.” But activists say the crisis continues to spiral, and won’t come under control until the use of contraceptives, including condoms, spreads widely among sexually active youth. “Parents should not be ashamed to openly talk with their children about sex and the use of contraceptives,” says Diane Alphonso, a women’s rights activist based in Bujumbura.
That remains a challenge, because of cultural taboos that surround acknowledging sexual activity. Many teenage boys shun condoms, calling them too much of a “hassle” — and there’s no social pressure on them. That’s restricted to girls. “When a girl becomes pregnant, she is expected to drop out of school due to the perception that schoolchildren are not supposed to have sex,” says Ntahombaye.
Many school officials remain hesitant about distributing free condoms in the classroom. “I don’t think a school is the right place for distributing condoms,” says Japhet Nyandwi, a teacher at Lycée Communal school in Bujumbura. “We don’t want to encourage students to have sex.” Even parents willing to let their children use condoms are ashamed to be seen getting them for their kids.
Systemic support for teenage mothers remains a distant illusion at the moment, though the start of a debate in Burundi could signal the first stirrings of change. For thousands of girls, that change can’t come too soon.
Lorraine Ndikumana contributed reporting from Bujumbura.
(*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the young women.)
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