‘I Thought It Was a Nightmare:’ Rape and Unintended Pregnancy
“I thought it was a nightmare!” said Jovia Alar*, who shared her nine-month ordeal with tears in her eyes. Jovia is a 14 year-old girl from Ssemuto, Mubende in Uganda. She is the eldest child of a single mother who supports her family by selling second-hand clothes in a seasonal market several miles away from home. One night, Jovia went to the nearby bushes to pick firewood that she would use to prepare supper, as she often did. Jovia recounts what happened next in her own words:
“Not even far from home, I felt something tightly holding me from behind, and before I realized, my clothes were torn, my mouth tightly held and heard a familiar voice saying, ‘Behave or you die.’ As I struggled to free myself, I realized this was our neighbor. I hit myself hard on the ground when he strongly pushed me as I tried to resist him. He overpowered me and finally raped me. After the incident, I felt dirty and was in intolerable pain. About an hour later, I found my way home. My mother literally understood what the problem was and helped to her bedroom where I explained everything to her in tears.”
Jovia became pregnant from the rape. Throughout the nine months of the unwanted pregnancy, she was met with feelings of shame and fear, feeling blamed for the assault that was not her fault. She was even suspended from school. “To date, the whereabouts of the neighbor are not known and the police have not done a thing to follow the case or even trace the felon,” explained Jovia’s grandmother. After the assault, Jovia had to relocate to her grandparent’s home because she could not stand the ignominy and trauma that came with living where the assault occurred.
As the doctor on duty that day, I assessed her and found that her pelvis could not handle the delivery. We then took her to the operating room where she delivered a live normal baby girl by emergency caesarean section. Despite all this, Jovia is still determined to pursue her studies but only after breastfeeding her baby for at least one year. She will not be able to attend the same school in which she studied before she became pregnant, but she is committed to her education when she can. “I will return to school after breastfeeding this baby for some months,” she explained.
At 14 years of age, when many of her peers are in school; Jovia is just one of the 20 teenaged girls giving birth every month at the General Military Hospital in Bombo, where 10% of the deliveries are by girls below 18 years of age. This figure does not include those that suffered complications from or died as a result of unsafe abortions.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 97% of rapists do not spend a day in jail, even when approximately two-thirds of assault cases are committed by someone known to the victim. During the period of 2009-2011, the Ugandan police received an average of 21 reported cases of rape per day. This unacceptably high figure is just a tip of the iceberg: many cases aren’t reported and those that are often result in light sentences, despite existing laws stipulating life imprisonment to one who performs a sexual act with another person who is below the age of 18. Unless this is changed, the negative health, social, and economic consequences that come with unplanned pregnancies will harm the progression of gender equality for future generations. Many young people remain ignorant about sexual health, as only five percent of Ugandan public health facilities provide youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services.
There is therefore an urgent need to amend existing laws on rape and early marriages so that rapists cannot continue to commit these crimes. It is equally important to incorporate comprehensive sex education into schools’ curriculum and community programs, and we must make available affordable, youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services to help reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies in this country.