GULU, Uganda (CNS) ─ Sitting outside her shack made of iron sheet, Miriam, who is six months pregnant, pondered her fate as she stared at her friends in uniform walking home from school.
"I would be among them, but this pregnancy has shuttered my dreams," said the 16-year-old girl, asking CNS to withhold her surname to protect her privacy. "I am bored and isolated because no one wants to talk to me. I feel bad because I would not be able to return to school, and my parents are not happy with me."
The 10th-grade pupil became pregnant by a 35-year-old shop owner in Gulu. She said the man used to lure her with money whenever her mother could send her to the shop to buy household goods.
"I didn't understand the risk I was involved in when I used to have sex with the man inside his shop," she said. "I was shocked after my mother took me to the clinic, and I was found pregnant after testing. I was forced to drop out of school, and I am not sure if I will return to school, because my parents said they would not pay my fees."
Miriam is among thousands of girls dropping out of school every year due to unwanted teenage pregnancy and early marriage. According to data from the United Nations, almost 25% of Ugandan women have given birth by age 18, while 64% of girls have sex before age 18. The report shows that teenage pregnancies are particularly high in rural areas or smaller cities like Gulu.
These statistics have prompted dozens of religious leaders, including priests, nuns, and catechists in northern Uganda, to start a door-to-door campaign to help rid the region of teenage pregnancies. During their visits, they talk and urge young people to abstain from sex in order to complete their education.
"We explain to them the dangers of early pregnancy and why they should abstain from sex until marriage," said catechist Daniel Okello from the Archdiocese of Gulu. "We also talk to their parents about the importance of bringing their children in a moral way that pleases God."
Okello said they have been encouraging parents of those girls who are already pregnant or have given birth to consider sending their daughters back to school after they give birth. He said most parents believe it would be a waste of money, and not sending them to school serves as a punishment.
"During our visit, we assist these teen mothers with essential items such as clothes, food, and money to start small businesses and sponsor those who want to return to school and pursue their dreams," said Okello, noting that they do such visits once every week within Gulu and neighboring towns in northern Uganda.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu urged religious leaders in the region to work as a team to fight the pregnancies. He said the pregnancies negatively affect the future of young girls, who face ridicule and shame, early marriage, health complications and trauma and remain in the circle of poverty.
He pleaded with religious leaders across the region and in the country to intensify their campaign against teenage pregnancies and early marriages. He said, for example, clerics should use Sunday sermons and other gatherings to preach about good moral behaviors and urge youths to abstain from sex and pursue their education.
"Let's work together as religious leaders to end teenage pregnancy that is destroying the lives of our young girls," said Archbishop Odama. "As a church, we are responsible for instilling moral values in our young people to ensure they can achieve their dreams and become responsible people in society."
Catechist Elisabeth Lalam from Holy Rosary Parish in Gulu Archdiocese said most girls in the region and even across the country get pregnant due to poverty, lack of moral teachings, peer pressure, lack of parental care, low educational level and rape, among other reasons.
Lalam urged the parents to help the church by taking up their roles and responsibilities of caring for and looking after their children. She said addressing the menace of teenage pregnancies requires combined efforts from all stakeholders, including government agencies, parents, religious leaders, children, elders and teachers.
"We have high incidences of teen pregnancies in our region, and we can only win this fight if all of us play our roles of looking after our children," she said. "Those girls who have already been affected should be embraced by their families and allowed to return to school without discrimination."
Okello said they were also focusing on how they can deal with the trauma facing teen mothers. He said the church had started counseling sessions to restore hope for the girls who have since given birth or are pregnant and were facing challenges such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
"We have had instances where teenage pregnancy victims have committed suicide due to shame and social stigma," he said, noting that people in society view them as bad examples to other girls. "Through the help of counselors, the church has been trying to assist pregnant girls and those with children through the mental and emotional distress they might be going through while also guiding them on how to take care of their babies and embrace their current situation."
Meanwhile, young girls like Miriam are appealing to stakeholders, including church leaders and government agencies, to take stern action against men taking advantage of young girls due to poverty and ignorance.
"If we jail all those men making young girls pregnant, we will never hear about teenage pregnancies," she said. "We are suffering because these men are still outside, continuing to look for young girls without fear of repercussions."