By Yasin Kakande
KAMPALA, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As coordinator of a shelter for pregnant teenagers in central Uganda, Ritah Ssetumba has seen thousands of young girls struggling to cope with having a child but even she was shocked when an 11-year-old girl arrived pregnant and married.
The girl, identified as Aidah, was referred to the Wamukisa Youth Centre by a village hospital in Buikwe District, 60 km (37 miles) from the capital Kampala, where she gave birth to a boy with her 16-year-old husband by her side.
Aidah is one of about 300,000 girls each year to get pregnant in Uganda which has one of the world's highest rates of pre-teen and teenage pregnancies as the east African nation struggles to enforce laws to clamp down on child marriages.
One in every four girls aged between 15 and 19 fall pregnant, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, and nearly half of girls are married before 18.
"Aidah was the youngest pregnant child we have ever got in almost a decade of our operations," Ssetumba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at their premises in Kampala.
"But what shocked us even more was that the girl had been married off by her mother a year earlier and she also considered herself married."
According to Ssetumba the mother agreed to let the then 10-year-old Aidah marry the 16-year-old to settle a debt with his family.
Aware of the dangers of child marriage, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, working with U.S. non-government organisation Vital Voices Global Partnership, is trying to raise awareness among girls about the dangers of early marriage and teenage pregnancy through theatrical drama and plays in schools.
This is the latest in a series of initiatives to back a campaign to reduce child marriages and teen pregnancies.
Ugandan authorities have struggled to enforce laws that set a minimum marriage age of 18, prompting the Ministry of Health to launch a partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) last year aiming to reduce the practice by at least 10 percent in five years.
Nakubulwa Mayi, a senior midwife at Mulago Referral Hospital the biggest hospital in the country, said pre-teen pregnancies posed serious physical and emotional risks to young girls.
"At this age a girl should be playing with dolls but not to have to handle a baby," she said.
HIGH NUMBERS OF CHILD BRIDES
A study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2013 indicated that early marriages and resultant pregnancies are the biggest cause of deaths among 15 to 19-year-old girls in Uganda, accounting for 20 percent of maternal deaths.
Others of those who survive the pregnancies can suffer lasting complications like fistula and disability.
But ignorance on risks of child marriage, limited access to education for girls, cultures dictating girls should marry young, and poverty, have all contributed to this growing trend of child marriage in Uganda, according to the 2015 National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy report.
Agnes Igoye, assistant coordinator of the anti-trafficking task force at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said early marriage is a form of sexual and gender-based violence with physical, social and economic effects.
"Once married, few girls return to school even if it becomes economically viable," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Igoye said they were now visiting different schools asking the students to come up with stories related to child marriage and early pregnancy so her team could train the girls to perform such plays at schools and in community theatres.
"These plays show that children know what is happening to them in our society and they also know that it's all wrong," she said. (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org)