Feature: Forced Into Motherhood Before Adulthood
Martha (not her real name) was only 16 when she had her first sexual encounter.As fate would have it, that single episode of sex, flung her on a path to motherhood.
She got pregnant and, nine months down the line, she gave birth to a baby girl.
Martha says, with regret, that she wouldn’t have been a teen mother had it not been for her peers who used to feed her with incorrect information about sex and reproduction.
She says the peers used to emphasize that sexual intercourse was a requirement for girls at an adolescent phase of development.
They would tell her how a girl at that stage needed ‘a particular vitamin’ that is only gotten from males through sex.
“My friends used to tell me that I would not develop into a fully-fledged fertile woman if I skipped sex while at puberty,” she says.
Ignorant as she was about issues of sexuality, she took her friends seriously.
She feared she would grow into an infertile woman so when a random boy made sexual advances on her, she easily bulged and got the pregnancy that forced her out of school.
“I got pregnant for a boy who denied responsibility. My parents advised me to let go as I was still young and had a chance of returning to school after delivery,” she says.
In 2020, when her baby was one and half years old, Martha thought of returning to school to rekindle her dream of becoming a nurse.
She enrolled back at Mchedwa Primary School in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Maliri in Lilongwe.
Martha told herself to be careful this time around to avoid carrying another unwanted pregnancy.
She joined Her Future Her Choice club which provides a platform for youths to meet and discuss sexual and reproductive health (SRH) issues.
A health expert from Likuni Mission Hospital also periodically pays the club a visit to provide SRH education and services including the provision of contraceptives.
The club was formed under the Her Future Her Choice (HFHC) project jointly implemented by Network for Youth Development (NfYD) and Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) with funding from Global Affairs Canada through Oxfam.
One of the project’s main objectives is to improve youths’ access to SRH information and services to reduce cases of teenage pregnancies and early marriages that force girls out of school.
UNFPA notes that teenage pregnancies and early marriages are some of the factors contributing to high school dropout rates among girls in Malawi
In a report titled “Mother Groups – Underutilised Resource in Girls’ Education in Malawi” the UN agency says 58 percent of girls drop out of school and out of the lot that remains in school, 18 percent fall pregnant while eight percent get married, leaving only 25 percent completing primary school education.
Martha says the HFHC club has helped enlighten her on issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights such that she can’t easily fall into trap of teenage pregnancy again.
A youth health services provider at Likuni Mission Hospital, Chilewani Masabuka says demand for SRH services is increasing among the youth in the area, saying about 150 of them come seeking the services at the facility every month, up from 30.
He says sensitization campaigns are helping dispel societal perceptions that SRH services are inappropriate for the youth.
Masambuka says barring youths from accessing SRH information and services is naïve as some of them are engaging in unprotected sex due to ignorance.
A demographic and health survey (DHS) which National Statistical Office (NSO) conducted in 2015-2016 found that some boys and girls debut in sex at very tender ages.
The survey found that 19 percent of women aged 25-49 had their first sexual encounters before age 15, and 64% before age 18.
Further, the survey revealed that 11 percent of men aged 25-49 had first sex before age 15 and 42% had it before turning 18.
The DHS survey also established that poor or low access to contraceptives is contributing to about 106,000 teenage pregnancies annually.
Masambuka observes that girls and boys are curious to try out things when they reach the adolescent stage as such they end up pregnant or getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“It is important that youths are given access to sexual and reproductive health services and information so that they should be able to make informed choices to avoid not only early pregnancies but also STIs,” says Masambuka.
Matron for HFHC club at Chiwenga Primary School in Lilongwe, Caroline Phiri says the club, constituting girls only, meets Tuesdays and Fridays every week.
Phiri says apart from offering them SRH education, the club members are also encouraged to report, in confidence, any cases of sexual abuse they experience whether at school or in their homes.
Project Officer for NfYD, Sekanawo Mwatibu says HFHC is a multinational project covering four countries in Africa including Malawi, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Zambia.
In Malawi, the project is being implemented Traditional Authorities (T/A) Malili and Chimutu in Lilongwe and T/As Amidu and Kalambo in Balaka district targeting 4,000 adolescent girls and young women aged between 10 – 24 years.
Mwatibu says the project focuses on comprehensive sexuality education to ensure that adolescent girls and young women have a greater awareness of their SRH rights, and the ability to claim those rights and services.
She says in Malawi it is hard to talk about issues to do with sexuality, more especially with the youth because it is considered taboo.
Mwatibu observes that youths end up making wrong decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health due to a lack of information.
“We are making progress in safeguarding sexual reproductive and health rights among the youth, especially girls and young women, to ensure that they are able to make informed decisions,” she said.
HFHC project rolled out in 2019 and is expected to wind up in 2023.
Written By: Yamikani Sabola-MANA