It was a mammoth crowd of stakeholders that cut across traditional rulers, religious leaders and faith based leaders, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations, development partners from all walks of life including opinion leaders who gathered together to show their support to this issue – teenage pregnancies – affecting the very fabric of African society.
Globally, it is estimated that 14 million adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 years give birth; one third of young women in developing countries give birth before the age 20 (UNFPA, 2012) estimation. Regionally, the adolescent child bearing is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50 per cent of adolescent girls give birth by age 20 (WHO 2010) statistics.
In Sierra Leone, therefore, early child bearing and teenage pregnancy is one of the more pervasive problems affecting the health, social, economic and political progress and empowerment of women and girls.
Analysis from both the Sierra Leone Demographic Health Survey (SLDHS), 2008, and the Multiple Indicator Cluster (MIC) shows that poverty and ignorance are the major causes of teenage pregnancies and they are mutually reinforcing in a negative fashion and as such to tackle teenage pregnancies, services and interventions would have to target these causes including the strategy direction to address the problems head-on of early marriages and child bearing. All the necessary programmes should be implemented to help girls protect themselves from early pregnancies and acquire the necessary education for their stable future lives. However, the enforcement of laws that protect teenage girls from abuse and exploitation in Sierra Leone is weak.
The current statistics of pregnant women aged 15-49 years, who were married or in consensual union, 16 per cent were married before age 15 years, and 50 per cent before age 18 years. In addition, 24.5 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 years, started having sexual intercourse before age 15 years.
Against this background of the high incidence of early girl-child marriage and pregnancies, the use of modern contraception is restricted to a small proportion of the female population of child bearing ages.
Few elements have been documented in Sierra Leone on the real impact of teenage pregnancies on the health of the girls, on their sexual and reproductive behaviours, on their level of educational attainments and on their current socio-economic status. As a result, there have been so far limited coordinated and focused efforts, at the national level, to devise programmes that would reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancies, or help to reintegrate teenage mothers into the productive socio-economic system either by continuing their education, skill training or accessing opportunities for employment or income generation.
Current researches show a strong relationship between poverty and teenage pregnancies with teenage girls in the poorest quintile being three times more likely to have a child before age 18 years compared to girls in the wealthiest quintile. The parents of most low-income families, who are unable to support their children’s basic needs, are faced with a choice between nutrition, health and education.
However, it is of importance that a certain value is given to girl-child education, but that both cost and traditionally, the mistrust in the education system are clear barriers for parents to send their girls to school. Parents do not see quick returns from education, whereas children, especially girls can contribute to the family’s financial income through petty-trading and family labour as well as through transactional sex.
The importance of social norms is also visible as regards contraceptives in Sierra Leone; it is not a social norm to use them and there is peer pressure against using them. Peer pressure in general plays a central role, bullying, teasing, name calling are worldwide phenomena at schools.
Teenagers who are abstaining from sex are also ostracized and sometimes made to feel inferior. While a UNICEF Document (2010) identifies the peer-pressure cycle as a key determinant for adolescents, particularly young girls, to indulge in unsafe behaviours, substance abuse and unprotected sex.
The impact of the problems can be said that all teenage pregnancies, irrespective of the outcome, have adverse consequences for the girls, the parents and the communities. Adolescent pregnancy is dangerous. The poorest girls in poorest communities in Sierra Leone and across Africa are most likely to become pregnant during adolescence, with serious long-term and wide-ranging consequences from health complications for the young mothers and babies to a broader economic deprivation and desperation.
Indeed, pregnancy is the leading cause of death to adolescent girls, and the youngest girls are particularly at risk. The maternal mortality Global report says adolescents are more likely to have long and obstructed labours due to their smaller body sizes and immature pelvic structure. This not only increases their risk of death, but also risk of developing fistula, while unsafe abortion kills many adolescents as it is estimated that one-third of teen pregnancies in the world end in abortion.
It is agreed that babies born to adolescent mothers are also at greater risk. A recent review found that adolescent pregnancies associated with premature delivery, still birth, fetal distress, birth asphyxia, low birth weight and miscarriages. Babies born to teen mothers are also far more likely to die than those born to older women.
All these factors necessitated the call for action and the development of a national strategy for the reduction of teenage pregnancies, entitled ‘Let Girls, Be Girls, Not Mothers!’ This took place on May 13 -15, 2013, at Sierra Leone, launched by President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma
The key-note address was delivered by Nigeria’s First Lady and President of African First Ladies Peace Mission (AFLPM), Dr. Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan, who also shared her experiences from the Nigerian perspective, on two most important topics on the role of traditional and religious leaders in the prevention of teenage pregnancies.
A problem diagnosed is a problem half solved. Nigeria’s First Lady’s profound concern for stopping the pauperization of the younger segment of her gender constituency – the female adolescent – was very palpable. This most vulnerable segment of the population must be saved from the pervasive problem of teen pregnancies and she heartily suggested the return to our root.
Social revolution of the early 60’s spread around the world with its sexual freedom. Freedom no doubt is good and if you feel free to use your body without regards to traditional and cultural norms and after 50 years of experimenting on this freedom, the result is an international story of woes. What then should African do now? Dr. Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan perspective sounds pragmatic. Her suggestion of traditional rulers’ roles in the cultural well-being of the teenage girl child through historical re-engineering of our values inculcated with youth appealing programmes cum sensitization of the community is some thing to be looked into. Her call for the involvement of religious leaders to preach chastity in churches and mosques, not doubt, may be just what may effectively reduce teen pregnancies. And this is most praticable to Nigeria’s society which is highly religious.
However, research shows that 48 per cent of 15-19 year old girls who said they had remained chaste, nearly one-half of these teenagers said that the main reason they abstained from sex was because it was against their religion or morals.
The emphasis from Dame Jonathan is that is teenagers yearn for spiritual guidance, faith communities are uniquely positioned to minister to this important need. Her appeals to religious leaders to continue to encourage youths and their families to rediscover faith institutions and the sacred teachings they uphold, is germane to removing the pain of teenage pregnancy. Religious leaders should reveal to their faithful what God originally intended sex for.
That this national strategy is a clarion call for immediate action, that the role of traditional and religious leaders in supporting communities to prevent teenage pregnancy cannot be overemphasized. This is because they are respected opinion molders, held in high esteem by the society and as such has a greater role to play for the common good and their wealth of experience will guide our adolescent boys, girls and their parents.
An action is proved either right or wrong by its result and our deviation from our cultural probity –abstention from sex until marriage, preached by both Christians and Moslems – is fast truncating the beautiful future of our teenage girls. Is there anything archaic in returning to something that can cure our social ill?
Even legal teenage pregnancy is not good and Mrs. Jonathan did not spare it. Accordingly she said, that a glimpse into the world of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone, states that “importance is given to girls marrying as virgins that the age of marriage often coincides with the first occurrence of female menstruation.” The alarming rate of teenage pregnancies was the main reason for the seminar in Sierra Leone. Teenage pregnancy should be frowned at, whether through illicit sex or through legal marriage. That the conference really offered vital platform to discuss the pressing issue while exploring new ways in which traditional and religious leaders can work in greater partnership in their communities to prevent the problem that has social, development, economic, psychological and health implications for the victims.
On health complications, the First Lady regretted the pains of girls of 14 years old and much younger, face during pregnancy and delivery, such as severe anaemia, acute malaria, pregnancy induced hypertension, obstructed labour, among others. These are not theoretical problems, they are real. So who can say teenage pregnancy is no evil perpetrated by men and boys of the same society? Mrs. Jonathan also wants the men-folk to be sensitized so that they can know how to behave toward the opposite sex.
The pain of teenagers who get pregnant goes beyond the trauma of the nine-month unwanted programme; they mostly remain unmarried and many, for fear of their grim future and stigmatization, hide their pregnancies, seek abortion and may end up dead or maimed at the hands of quack doctors.
It is pertinent to know that an estimated 70,000 teenage mothers die each year because they had children before they were physically ready for motherhood. These unmarried pregnant teens often resort to desperate measures to seek to abort their mostly unplanned pregnancies by patronizing the services of quacks, resulting in either their death or loss of future reproductive ability, amongst those who do survive.
In addition, researches also indicate that young mothers and their babies are at a greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections like fistula. Others end up isolated, stigmatized and abandoned and so become depressed.
With all these basket of woes, the First Lady’s concern should be the concern of all compassionate mothers, fathers, and almost everybody. Just imagine dropping drop out of school, not being able to reach one’s full potential and actualizing one’s dreams, all because of the social malaise of sexual immorality and teenage pregnancy! The girls are more likely to face a life of poverty if they do not have supportive parents or marketable skills to take care of themselves and their children. Why not prevent it all? This is the import of Dame Jonathan perspective.
Ignorance and poverty are also factors that contribute to teenage pregnancy as young impressionable girls are enticed with gifts, money, sweet words and promises of marriage. This where parents should not only be teachers to their children, they should also be communicators and friends to them. They should always point out the differences in how things turn out for those who become teenage mothers and others who marry later, delay pregnancy beyond their adolescence. The latter always normally have more chances to stay healthier, to improve their education and build a better life for themselves and their families.
Parents must also take renewed interest in their children, mothers have roles to play in this regard and sex education should begin at home and from infancy. If the children are not taught about their private parts by their parents, they will learn about them wrongly from their inexperienced peers and bad adults who want to exploit them
The First Lady’s concern did not stop at pointing out the problem, she abundantly proffered solutions, to the extent of recommending the importance of town hall meetings, continuous community sensitization programmes and encouraged traditional rulers, religious leaders to partner with NGOs and civil society organizations to create the relevant awareness in their communities including the correction of moral values and value-reorientation by our traditional institutions.
Before the curtain finally came to an end, Dame Jonathan’s Nigerian situation became a topic and Nigeria, not being immune to the problem, has a programme for preventing high risk sexual behaviours during the teenage years. This programme, the First Lady revealed, is a national reproductive health policy since 2000.
All said and done at the seminar, Dame Jonathan said all hands should be on deck to support the First Lady, and President of Sierra Leone, to mitigate the challenges of teen pregnancies
“I am confident that the stakeholders and actors here present will implement the strategies of the action plan with great success for the overall good of the people of Sierra Leone and Africa at large,” she said.
Omoba Kenneth Aigbegbele, is Media Adviser to the First Lady, Federal Republic of Nigeria
Email: [email protected]
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