by Ruth Aine - 25 April 2014
“I started living with my partner at the age of 14. My plans were to have a stable relationship, to keep on with school and to become a professional. However, I got pregnant at 15. At first I did not know how to take care of the newborn, I had to quit school.” Marcela 18, El Salvador.
“I was 14 years old and was in high school when I had to stop going to school because my family did not have the money to pay my school fees. My mother used to send my sister and me to the market to beg for something to bring home to eat. One day we begged two gentlemen for some money. They gave 2,000 Congolese francs [about $2] to my sister to buy food to take home.
Once my sister left, they took me to a pub and bought me a sweet drink, but it had something in it that put me to sleep. I woke up in a health centre, where nurses told me that I had been raped. I became pregnant.” Chada 16, DRC.
I had my first child when I was 14 and the second one at 17. To survive with my children, I work in people’s gardens for 700 Rwandan Francs [about 1$] a day or wash people’s clothes.” Emerithe 18, Rwanda.
These are harrowing tales of teenage pregnancy from across the world. They are heartbreaking, and they do not even tell 1% of the stories about what goes on around the world when it comes to child and teenage pregnancies. These stories represent 2013. This is not 10 years back. The reality bites. They are excerpts from the State of the World Population Report for 2013 by the United Nations Population Fund.
Nargis Shirazi is a Ugandan young lady that is doing work on sexual reproductive health among teenagers. She is working with adolescents in slums. Her idea is to find them where they are and interact with them through the arts, mainly music, dance and drama. So far, she has been able to take a play to theatre called the Twist. She is working on another for this year. She recounts a young lady, eight years of age that she met on one of her recent visits. I call her lady because I find it odd to call her a child. This eight year old was selling herself for 3,000/- Ugx [about $ 1.2]. When asked why, she said that she was told so by her mother. She was mandated to put food on the table. Shirazi says that such a scene is not uncommon in Kisenyi, currently Uganda’s biggest slum. While we are worried about the teenagers, the eight year olds are already at it. They are trying to support their families through prostitution. We have lost all the innocence there ever has been in society. The future is no more. If an eight year old is exercising? prostitution to support her family, will she ever be saved? Will someone ever be able to convince her that there is much more to live for? Does she know about HIV/AIDS or sexually transmitted diseases? How do you talk to her - as a teenager, an adult or a woman? It is very confusing. But that is reality.
The underlying causes of pregnancy before the age of 18 are said to be poverty, child marriages, gender inequality, national policies restricting access to contraception and lack of access to education, to mention but a few. These are not alien to us. Up to 19% of young women in developing countries, mostly from Africa, become pregnant before the age of 18.
Fight poverty, re-invest in education of the girl child, advocate for gender equality, fight for the respect of human rights of all. That is what we have agreed will allow us to have a healthy generation in years to come. But none of these things will bring back the innocence of an eight year old. None of these things will allow a teenage mother to be whole again. Her innocence is already gone.
Almost 50% of all sexual assaults around the world are against girls below the age of 16. Our criminal and justice systems do not recognize some of these ages. In a country like Uganda, contraceptives for teenagers are a no-go area. Society dictates that once teenagers are allowed to buy and access condoms for example, they are being given a free ticket to immorality. These are decisions being made by legislators and society leaders whose children are protected and have access to a ‘normal’ childhood and normal teenage years.
And so, as we fight for a healthy generation in years to come, what are we doing to ensure that it is not only healthy, but also innocent enough to take on the world and make it its own?