Our country still has high teenage pregnancy rates with the poorer communities within the country being the most affected. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 20141 24.2 % of women between 15 and 19 years of age had begun child bearing with the rural communities having a higher percentage of 28.7 compared to 14.2% in urban settlements. Early sexual activity has many complications which include increased risk of acquiring sexually transmitted illnesses and HIV and the long term complications from the various diseases for example high risk of cervical cancer in the case of Human Papilloma Virus infection (HPV). Early childbearing is also associated with birth related complications resulting in risk of both maternal and neonatal mortality. Stillbirths and death in the first week of life are 50% higher among babies born to mothers younger than 20 years than among babies born to mothers 20–29 years old.2
The government is trying to come up with a lot of measures and interventions to discourage early marriages and are working on laws which might arrest recipients of lobola for under eighteen women. Teenage pregnancy is a contributor to early marriages. What happens to an adolescent who falls pregnant? What options are available for them? Medical abortion is illegal in such circumstances, will this promote unsafe abortions? Adoption is an alternative but consider the number of children already in need of adoption. What if her family abandons her? At least the family now has to find ways of accepting their new reality which is a welcome development as long as it does not expose the survivor to exploitation. Progressive and usually privileged families have usually not forced their pregnant teens into marriage. They have been supportive and ensured their daughters became independent enough to care for their own children. Some young mothers have also not been deprived of an education or pursuit of their dreams.
However in majority of teen pregnancy cases, the girls are affected more than the boys. Both are expelled if they go to the same school. I consider expulsion to be unnecessary and might complicate affected people’s lives more. Expulsion disrupts their access to education and is retrogressive as far as empowering the young parent is concerned. In most cases the boy’s life continues as normal and the girl is pulled out of school. Even if she stays in school there is stigma associated with being pregnant. I am an advocate for comprehensive sexual and reproductive education and easier access to contraception for adolescents but it seems to be a very controversial topic in our community which will need a lengthy discussion on its own.
One of the many reasons pregnant women were forced to elope was to avoid raising a “bastard”, single parenthood and the associated stigma. Eloping also forced the father of the child to be responsible for his actions. In light of new developments which might prevent pregnant teenagers from forced marriages what measures will be there for the custody of the child? Traditionally in such cases the man responsible for the pregnancy had to pay a fine termed “damage” and lobola. How will the cultural practices complement, affect or be affected by a law banning receiving lobola for an under eighteen young girl? Will a case of a pregnant teen be exempted from the law and what will be the implications of such in preventing forced marriages? I hope all these questions will stimulate constructive dialogue.
Could stigma associated with single parenthood be an unintended consequence of such a law? “Single mothers” are victims of stigma associated with single parenthood. They are labelled promiscuous, prostitutes and the abused term “mvana”. Mvana is a term used to refer to unmarried women who has/had a child or children. I assume it was meant to be just a descriptive term but has now become a discriminatory label laden with stigma. Our society places a lot of focus on women virginity and sexual purity another flaw in the paternalistic gender story. The prejudice and stereotypes might negatively affect her future including marriage and expose her to discrimination.
We need to address the root causes and confront gender disparities that promote the above stigma. Getting pregnant should not destroy a young woman’s dream or be the beginning of an emotional turmoil. This is when family and community support is needed for the young mother to adjust to the changes instead of alienating her. Ideally we should empower young women to become parents when they choose and are ready through comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and easier access to contraception. 4 % of young men and 4.1 % of young women had sex before the age of 15. 58.7% of young women and 46.0 % of young men between the age of 15 and 24 years had ever had sex1. We should therefore change attitudes of contraception being for married people and address the need by sexually active unmarried young people. Young people should be allowed to make informed decisions and denying them access to information and contraception is violating their sexual rights.
- Zimbabwe Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2014 Final Report March 2015