Don’t Neglect Teenage Pregnancy in the Fight to End Child Marriage in Africa
According to UNICEF, in the past quarter century, the prevalence of child marriage in West and Central Africa (which encompasses six of the ten countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world) has declined by 20%. Governments have been receptive to campaigns to end the harmful practice that denies young girls their basic human rights, takes away their freedom, and restricts the level of education that they are able to achieve. UNICEF writes:
“Child marriage – marriage before the age of 18 – is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the harmful practice remains widespread.
Child marriage can lead to a lifetime of suffering. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence.”
While this continues to be a success story, there is a worrying trend of countries that seek punitive action against young mothers or pregnant students. Young girls are not blamed for being forced into marriages before their 18th birthday, yet they bare the brunt of the blame if they are impregnated. Rather than providing support for these girls, many governments punish them, solidifying the poverty cycle and contradicting education equality goals. The UN reports that the ‘African continent has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world’. Despite this, governments aren’t taking positive actions to reduce teenage pregnancy rates and support pregnant girls or young mothers to achieve their full potential.
In June 2018, Human Rights Watch revealed that ‘24 African countries lack a re-entry policy or law to protect pregnant girls right to education’. While only a minority of African Union governments explicitly exclude pregnant girls from school, some countries, such as Morocco and Sudan, ‘apply morality laws that allow them to criminally charge adolescent girls with adultery, indecency, or extra-marital sec’. Meanwhile, many senior government officials including in Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, and Tanzania have publicly declared that pregnant students are to be expelled from public schools. Tanzanian President, John Magufuli exclaimed in 2017:
“As long as I am president… no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school… After getting pregnant, you are done’.
These countries don’t address the causes of adolescent pregnancy and don’t take into account whether or not the girls were raped. Although sometimes punitive actions are taken against the boys who impregnate teenage girls, more often than not the father would be significantly older. He would have already passed through education and gotten away with the crime of statutory rape. Young girls are being protected against child marriage, but where is their protection against teenage pregnancy? Where is the sexual health education, support and empathy for children who are put in this position? Why aren’t governments doing more to help these girls instead banishing them from society?
Sex Education Needs to Stop Being a Taboo
One of the major driving forces behind adolescent pregnancy is a lack of education. In South Africa, despite having the world’s highest rate of people living with HIV, research by Mathabo Khau revealed that religious and cultural taboos hamper sex education. The Guttmacher institute conducted extensive research in Sub-Saharan Africa interviewing 12-19 year olds in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda. They found that among the 15-19 year olds who had had sex in the past year, only 29 - 47% of the girls used contraceptives. Furthermore, only ‘about half of 15-19 year olds across the four countries had received any sex education at school.’
Despite many governments adopting sexual education as a mandatory part of public education, it is scarcely executed. Teenagers are taught abstinence instead of learning about contraceptive methods and safe sex. Some believe it’s immoral to teach young girls about sex, yet turn in disgust when these girls turn up with a baby bump because no one told them about contraception. It’s both the parents’ and government's responsibility to ensure that young people get the education that they need to prevent pregnancies and the transmission of STDs.
Governments Need to Tackle Rape and Sexual Exploitation
The Guttmacher report reveals that ‘almost one in five females in Ghana, Malawi and Uganda report that their first sexual experience occurred through force or because their partner insisted’. Meanwhile, ‘in three of the four countries, more than 40% of sexually active 15-19 year old females have had partners in the past year who were five or more years older.’ Several adolescent pregnancies are the result of sexual exploitation or rape. The men who commit these crimes often leave the girls to fend for themselves, leaving pregnant teenagers in precarious financial situations.
Rather than adopting a rhetoric that vilifies young girls who have often been groomed, raped, or forced into relationships that have resulted in their pregnancies, governments need to turn their attention to the perpetrators of these crimes. Girls should be taught about sexual exploitation, and given the skills to defend themselves in situations where older man could take advantage of them. Police and communities need to listen to girls if they report a rape, rather than branding them with a scarlet A and banishing them from the community.
It’s Time to Improve Access to Family Planning and Contraception
A lack of widespread availability of contraception contributes to the high number of adolescent pregnancies. The World Health Organisation reports that in Africa, ‘24.2% of women of reproductive age have an unmet need for modern contraception.’ Meanwhile, poverty and lack of resources continues to be huge factor in adolescent pregnancy. For example, in the DRC, Adolescent fertility is nearly three times higher among young women living in the poorest households (42%) than among those living in the wealthiest households (15%).
Rather than putting efforts into forced pregnancy testing in schools, governments should be investing their time and money into providing widespread access to sexual health clinics and family planning centres to help prevent unwanted teenage pregnancies. Girls equally need psychological support and health advice if their pregnancies are the result of rape or exploitation. Punitive actions simply alienate these girls from their communities at a time when they need them the most.
What Needs to Change?
Human Rights Watch reveals that twenty-six African Union countries have laws, policies or strategies in place to guarantee girls’ right to go back to school after pregnancy’. Yet only six of these countries have actual laws that allow pregnant girls to continue their education, while just four countries have a ‘continuation’ law that allows pregnant girls to remain in school both before and after the birth of their child. The remaining countries adopt a ‘re-entry’ policy that forces pregnant girls out of schools, with an option of re-admittance after giving birth on condition that the girl meets certain criteria.
Support from schools and government policies make all the difference for young mothers and pregnant students. Angela, from Migori County in Western Kenya, who became pregnant when she was 16 is testament to how girls can stay in education, despite all the stigmatisation that they face.
“I became pregnant when in class eight in 2014. I needed money to register for my final [primary school leaving] exam. My father had married another wife and left us. My mum didn’t have any money. I met a man who was working as a part-time teacher and told him my problems. He said he will give me the money. I started a sexual relationship with him, and that is how I got pregnant. My community mocked me. Other students rejected me. They would mock me and laugh at me. I felt ashamed that I was a mother in the midst of girls. I almost left school, but the principal encouraged me and I took heart. My mother struggles to educate me, but I am now in form three.”
Every government, school, teacher and parent should build a support system for girls who get pregnant while they’re in education, whether or not its the result of a consensual sexual relationship, rape or sexual exploitation. Pregnancy is not a contagious disease that requires isolation. Just as no girl should have to leave school because of child marriage, having a baby shouldn’t be a barrier to completing an education.
Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza