Adolescent motherhood in Uganda: Dilemmas, health seeking behaviour and coping responses
Atuyambe, Lynn Muhimbuura
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Introduction: Maternal mortality remains one of the most daunting public health problems in resource limited settings. Maternal health services play a critical role in the improvement of sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially for adolescent mothers. Adolescence is a time of rapid change and transition that can be stressful and difficult; pregnancy can further complicate this period. In Uganda, morbidity and mortality among adolescent mothers and their children are high. In order to better understand this situation, studies (I-IV) were conducted with the following objectives: to describe experiences and problems of pregnant adolescents (I); to describe health seeking behaviour (II) and analyze coping responses (III) of adolescents during pregnancy, delivery and early motherhood; and to compare health seeking practices of adolescents and adult mothers during pregnancy and early motherhood (IV). Methods: Qualitative (I-III) and quantitative (IV) studies were carried out in Wakiso district, Uganda. In study I, six focus group discussions (FGDs) were held with adolescent mothers and pregnant adolescents, and six key informant interviews (KIIs) were conducted with community leaders, persons in-charge of health units, and traditional birth attendants. In study II, 13 FGDs were conducted with married pregnant adolescents (5), unmarried pregnant adolescents (3) and married or unmarried adolescents with children (5). Semi-structured interviews were held with six KIs who were in-charge of maternity units. In study III we prospectively followed 24 pregnant adolescents (married and unmarried). Qualitative interviews about their experiences and coping responses were conducted at six months of pregnancy, one week post partum and at six months after delivery. All qualitative interviews and FGDs were tape-recorded. Content analysis (I-II) and narrative analysis (III) were done. In study IV, we conducted a cross sectional study in which 762 women (442 adolescents and 320 adults) were interviewed using a structured questionnaire. We assessed odds ratios (with 95% CI) for health care seeking during antenatal and postnatal periods, comparing adolescents to adult first-time mothers. Results: In study I, results revealed that pregnant adolescents faced domestic physical violence. Furthermore, they were psychologically violated by parents and partners as well as the community. Pregnant adolescents were treated inhumanely, overworked with household chores and had inadequate food to eat. Adolescents experienced stigma and, as a result, some carried out unsafe abortions. Both KIs and FGDs revealed that health workers were rude and unsympathetic to pregnant adolescents, which contributed to delays in seeking healthcare. Two main themes emerged in study II; 'feeling exposed and powerless‘, and 'seeking safety and empathy‘. The categories identified in the first theme were 'the dilemma of becoming an adolescent mother' and 'lack of decision making power'. In the second theme the following categories were identified: 'cultural practices and beliefs about birth', 'expectations and experiences', 'transport, a key determinant to health seeking', and 'dealing with constraints'. Adolescents felt exposed and powerless due to the dilemma of early motherhood and lack of decision-making power. The adolescent mothers seemed to be in continuous quest for safety and empathy. In study III, two narrative types and one narrative case emerged from the data: 'dealing with problems‘ (DWP), 'avoidance and shame‘ (AS) and 'violence and grief‘ (VG). The DWP type was characterized by wanting to solve her problems e.g. seeking healthcare, social support or initiating innovative ways to earn a living. Married adolescents seemed to cope better. The AS type was more resigned and helpless, avoiding realities, while the VG case was in crisis reaction and grief, and did not see any future. The first narrative type can be classified as 'problem-focused coping‘ and the last two narrative types as 'emotion-focused coping‘. Lastly, study IV revealed that adolescent mothers were significantly more disadvantaged in terms of healthcare seeking for reproductive health services and faced more challenges during pregnancy and early motherhood compared to adult mothers. Adolescent mothers were more likely to have dropped out of school due to pregnancy (OR=3.61, 95% CI: 2.40-5.44), less likely to earn a salary (OR=0.43, 95% CI: 0.24-0.76), and less likely to attend antenatal care (OR=1.52, 95% CI: 1.12-2.07) compared to adult mothers. Adolescents were also more likely to experience violence from parents (OR=2.07, 95% CI: 1.39-3.08) and to be stigmatized by the community (CI=1.58, 95% CI: 1.09-2.59). In early motherhood, adolescent mothers were less likely to seek second and third vaccine doses for their infants [Polio2 (OR=0.73, 95% CI: 0.55-0.98), Polio3 (OR=0.70: 95% CI: 0.51-0.95), DPT2 (OR=0.71, 95% CI: 0.53-0.96), DPT3 (OR=0.68, 95% CI: 0.50-0.92)] compared to adult mothers. Conclusions: Pregnant adolescents often lack basic needs like shelter, food and security. They also face relational problems with families, partners and the community (I). In search of safety and empathy, pregnant adolescents seek healthcare both in the modern and the traditional health sectors. They are in dilemma as they feel ashamed to meet their peers and also fear to visit health facilities (II). Married adolescents or those in committed relationships seem to cope better (problem-focused) with stressors during pregnancy and early motherhood than unmarried adolescents (III). Adolescents show poorer health seeking behaviour for themselves and their children, and increased community stigmatization and violence compared to adult mothers. This suggests bigger challenges to the adolescent mothers in terms of social support (IV). Adolescent friendly interventions such as pregnancy groups targeting pregnant adolescents with information of pregnancy, delivery and early childhood care could be introduced and implemented to improve adolescent mothers‘ health and that of their infants. Key words: Adolescent, motherhood, health seeking behaviour, coping responses, qualitative, narratives, Uganda.