Teenage Pregnancies Spinning Out Of Control In Burundi

The UN's back to school program in Burundi (UN)
The UN's back to school program in Burundi (UN)
Stany Ngendakumana

Full statistics aren't yet available -- but even with partial numbers, it is clear that teen pregnancies are on the rise in Burundi.

So far this year, 30 students from the Budahunga communal school in the Kirundo province have already been expelled for being pregnant. Ten others from two private schools of Bujumbura have suffered the same fate. The Bafashebige coalition, an organization promoting education for all, says the situation is spiraling out of control, and won't get better until teenagers start using condoms.

Many Burundi teenagers believe condoms to be unpractical; others just don't feel confident about using them. One student from Rohero High School says they're too much of a hassle: "Condoms need a lot of concentration. You must check that it isn't torn, that it's correctly placed, that it doesn't slide off during intercourse."

But "using a condom is a matter of life and death," assures an official of PSI Burundi, a health NGO. For him, the country is past having a debate about whether or not to use condoms, especially since young people are so much more active sexually these days. The key is to make them understand that condoms are the only way to prevent pregnancy and transmitted diseases.

Unfortunately, even those who want to use condoms -- and whose parents are supportive -- are ashamed to ask for them in public in the few stores and health centers where they can be found. In order to get around the taboo, there is an urgent need for condom dispensers in school bathrooms, for teenagers to be able to get them without feeling embarrassed.

Not enough sex education in high schools

Most school officials don't agree. "Distributing prophylactics is against school values," says the director of a Bujumbura high school. He believes contraception is the responsibility of other institutions -- and of parents.

A former director of the Musinzira High School believes there must be more sex education classes, but agrees schools shouldn't encourage teenage sex by distributing condoms to their students.

For the secondary school education planning board (BEPES) -- whose goal, among others, is for schools to be at the forefront in the fight against AIDS --preventing pregnancies in high schools is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

Until then, pregnant teens will continue to be expelled from school -- to be reintegrated only when they present a medical document attesting they have given birth.

Read more from Syfia in French.

Photos- UN Photos

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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