The adage “education is key to success” is a phrase emphasised amongst all sectors of society in the Zambezi region battling to reduce rising numbers of teenage pregnancies and ensure that teenage girls stay in school.
The situation is raising alarm bells, as many poor and rural families experience the negative ripple effects brought about by their teenage children becoming parents and leaving them with no option other than to either become parents to their grandchildren or let the young mothers drop out of school. National statistics estimate that 13 000 teenage pregnancies are recorded per year.
The effects of teenage pregnancies are felt throughout the community, from household economic hardships to pressures on learning and the advancement of the girl-child. But the impact of the responsibility of a new life is felt by people other than just the parents.
Fifty-five year old widow, Namasiku* knows that trauma too well, after raising three of her grandchildren over the past five years to enable her children to return to school or to seek employment. Her late husband was a cattle herder and after his death more than a decade ago, she had to take over the responsibility of raising their children. She made ends meet by working for affluent community members on their farms and gardens, as well as plastering their traditional homes.
Her first daughter dropped out of school in Grade 9 at the age of 15 after falling pregnant, and ended up in an early marriage at the age of 16 as Namasiku had no means to look after the teenage girl and the baby. Mwangala* is her firstborn who, at the time, was doing very well in school. Namasiku’s hopes for her future were dashed by news of her daughter’s pregnancy, and the teenager’s inability to return to school due to the strife and poverty that the family faced.
Mwangala was impregnated by a young cattle herder. “My daughter was a top performer at school and if she did not fall pregnant, she would have been a better person today. Now she ended up being a security guard earning a meagre salary of N$ 1,200 a month,” says Namasiku with tears in her eyes.
“I have really struggled with these kids over the years to provide them with milk, food and clothing. The parents are just kids who made kids, they have no sense of responsibility and I cannot ignore the plight and the wellbeing of the little ones,” she says.Namasiku* on how caring for her grandchildren has changed her life.
The situation was worsened by the fact that Namasiku was forced to take responsibility for her daughter and two children after her son-in-law abandoned them. A few years later Namasiku’s household added another mouth to feed when her teenage son impregnated a girl while in Grade 10. The girl’s mother could not take care of the month-old baby, as she too had just given birth. Namusiku took over the responsibility to enable the teenagers to return to school. “I have really struggled with these kids over the years to provide them with milk, food and clothing. The parents are just kids who made kids, they have no sense of responsibility and I cannot ignore the plight and the wellbeing of the little ones,” she says.
She added that her work and household income has also been affected as she cannot perform some of the chores in hot and windy environments with the baby on her back as it is a risk to the baby’s health. “There are times I am forced to abandon my work which brings me income to look after the baby when she is not well. We have struggled financially because I have to give more attention to the baby,” says Namasiku.
She recalls the stigma that the community attaches to having a teenage child dropping out of school due to pregnancy. She says her and her daughter had to be strong mentally to deal with all the comments, name-calling and shame that society attaches to the situation, especially when the girl is unable to go back to school.
What happens after our leaders commit to a policy?
Namibia is signatory to several policies, including the Maputo Protocol, and has committed to ensure the health of women and girls – which includes respecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health. Specifically, the Maputo Protocol explicitly says that the decision to have children, the number of children, and the space between those children are a cornerstone of women and girls’ healthcare.
It’s hard to reconcile this commitment to what women and girls experience on the ground. The challenges that under-resourced Namibians face because of teenage pregnancies indicate that ensuring that people can decide whether to have children allows them to decide what their futures can look like.
Yolanda Lisho, Chief Social Worker at the Zambezi Health Directorate, says that the Department of Social Services provides support to young mothers. This support includes a range of counselling services and nutritional support and infant formula. But that support isn’t infinite.
For women raising children without the assistance of fathers – women like Namasiku and her daughter Mwangala – carrying the responsibility for children is a lonely task. In theory, uninvolved or absent fathers can be compelled to pay maintenance to support the child’s upkeep. In practice, these services are far from easy to obtain. The Zambezi region has 3 Magistrates Courts where maintenance can be claimed, but they are clustered in the east of the region, making them inaccessible for people without access to transport. And in terms of family planning methods, demand is seldom met with a consistent supply of preventative measures.
Our policies and the experiences of the estimated 13 000 annual teenage pregnancies just don’t match up. But they could, if and only if our leaders act on their commitments. Until then, encouraging women and girls to “stay in school” while restricting their options rings hollow.
*Not their real name.
Rosemary Nalisa is a communications consultant and freelance journalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover image by Muyowe Photography