Yesterday was International Women’s day and as I celebrated my existence as a woman and that of millions of others, I also spent the morning at a White Ribbon Alliance forum looking at the plight of young women who do not make it to their full potential through no fault of their own. The White Ribbon Alliance is an organization that champions for safe pregnancy and childbirth for all women. The young women we were talking about are the adolescent girls whose lives get curtailed because of pregnancy too early in life, and the resultant health issues, disabilities, and even death.
A teenager is just not ready for the demands of pregnancy. Not physically, not emotionally, and certainly not economically. Yet in many areas, girls as young as 10 are falling into this hole, with Narok, Homa Bay, West Pokot, Tana River and Nyamira leading the pack. The fact that there are such clear stats in some areas shows a link to retrogressive cultural practices like female genital mutilation, early marriage and therefore early pregnancy. What’s more, these girls’ troubles do not end at pregnancy.
Let’s face it. For too many girls, pregnancy means the end of school. Uneducated mothers are also unlikely to educate their daughters, and this becomes a vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment of the girl child. As much as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health are operating a back to school program where girls are able to go back to school after childbirth, many of these girls face severe stigma when they go to school as mothers. Their fellow students and even teachers do not look at them the same way as they do the non mothers. In any case, some of these girls are married off remember? They are wives at the tender ages of as low as 14.
Because these girls are too young and not ready for labour and delivery, there is Fistula – one of the most debilitating conditions that a woman can ever have to endure. Fistula is a hole in the birth canal and is mostly, though not always as a result of obstructed labour. A hole between the bladder and vagina and/or the rectum and vagina means that the affected person is always unintentionally leaking either urine or worse, faeces. This person has to live in the resultant poor hygiene and a perpetual foul smell. More than this, they have to live with the crippling psychological effects of embarrassment and isolation from society. As a woman it is difficult to imagine what my fellow women with the condition go through. Something as every day as staying clean and dry becomes an emotional burden and expensive nightmare. And yet this is something we’re putting some our girls through for many years of their lives until help comes along if ever.
True, HIV is no longer a death sentence. But young girls still do not have the maturity to deal with the strict adherence that is required for Anti Retroviral Therapy to work properly. Besides, many of these girls are married off to men old enough to be their fathers and even grandfathers and it is not like they’re shipped off with their reproductive rights in tow. It is not like saying no to sex in a culturally endorsed practice is a choice they have. They’re often operating around cultures that are not an ideal environment in which to try and understand their growing bodies, let alone their reproductive rights.
With all this bleakness, what can we do?
Speak up. Speaking up enough and not stopping will get things done. When there was an uproar about road accidents late last year for example, something was done at policy level. With ending teenage pregnancy, everyone can do something. Media can track and report on progress, and amplify the voices of those fighting it. Government can ensure that all ministries involved rally around the problem, formulate policies and enact existing ones like the Sexual offences act, Children’s act and Back to School. Law enforcement can and should ensure that those violating under age girls are prosecuted. Religious leaders should join the fight against negative cultural beliefs and sensitize communities against them.
The list of things everyone in society can do to end the menace of teenage pregnancy is much longer than the above, to include health workers, cultural leaders, parents, donors, boys, the girls themselves and perhaps most important of all, the adult men who are having sex with these kids.
For us out here? Speak up and keep speaking up.