Did you know that nearly half of Malawian girls get married before their 18th birthday and almost a third fall pregnant by 19?
Parents and traditional leaders in Mzimba, Dowa and Dedza are speaking up to tackle teen pregnancies, child marriages, unsafe abortion and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
Their take on efforts to protect sexually active young people is easing access to quality sexual reproductive health (SRH) and rights information and services, including uptake of contraceptions.
For the concerned elders, early pregnancies and marriages could be a result of parental indifference which leaves the youth at the mercy of inaccurate information, myths and misconceptions about their sexuality.
In Dowa, Esnath Ingolo was stunned when a 13-year-old girl induced an abortion in a bathroom after her partner denied responsibility.
“Fearing a backlash from her parents, she followed a friend’s advice to see a traditional birth attendant who terminated the pregnancy using bitter herbs,” she explains.
Ingolo found the girl groaning due to severe bleeding and other complications.
“The girl could have died had I not taken her to Dowa Family Planning Association of Malawi [Fpam] Clinic for post-abortion care,” she explains, urging parents to discuss sexual taboos with adolescents.
Fpam has established youth-friendly centres to increase access to SRH information and services for young people.
Ingolo encourages her two daughters to get counselling and contraception to avoid any unwanted pregnancy and STIs.
In Kacheche, Mzimba North, Mama Kanyenda’s daughter, Glory, fell pregnant aged 16. The mother wished the girl was using contraceptives.
“With contraception and SRH information and services, Glory wouldn’t have dropped out of school to become a mother,” she says.
However, Glory’s sister, Monica, discreetly uses injectable contraception. When Kanyenda got the news, she allowed the Form Three girl to continue “safeguarding her future”.
Monica feared that her parents would be angry if they discovered that she was using the jab “to safeguard her body and future”.
However, more women than men allow their children, especially girls, to access family planning, cervical cancer screening and HIV testing and counselling.
During a fathers’ panel discussion at Chejelo Health Post in Traditional Authority Kachindamoto, Dedza, some men said that giving the youth access to SRH information and services is like promoting premarital sex and promiscuity.
However, they called for youth-health services clinics to supplement the sex-related talks they sometimes give their children when dining, farming and chatting.
Some custodians of culture are rising to protect the youth and reduce the family size, realising that having many children is not a blessing, but a burden.
Group village head Kapesi of T/A Inkosi Kachere in Dedza says his area has experienced a decline in STIs and teen pregnancies since Fpam started working in the area.
“Dedza has a huge burden of early marriages and pregnancies. We hope to reduce the figures with availability of SRH and HIV services in communities,” Kapesi says.
He says family planning empowers the youth, especially girls to remain in school and protect their goals.
The traditional leader encouraged parents to refer their children to youth-friendly clinics for quality SRH information and services.
Village head Espin Dang’ando Kumwenda of Kacheche in Mzimba is aware that family planning helps women and girls delay and space pregnancies.
“Previously, people used to have six to 10 children. Today, most families prefer to have just one, two or three children. They don’t want to have more children than they can adequately take care of,” he says.
Kumwenda allows adolescents access SRH information and services because “young people have sexual feelings no one can control”.
He pledges to continue his campaign against early pregnancies, child marriages and large families because the size of land per person is shrinking fast.
Unintended pregnancies, including those involving teenagers, do not only fuel rapid population growth but also school dropout rates, STIs, child marriages and unsafe abortions.
Parents across Southern Africa are slowly opening up to discuss the importance of contraception with young people.
However, there is a growing resistance to comprehensive sexuality education widely misconceived as sex education.
Fpam and Partners in Sexual Health of South Africa are engaging parents and guardians to lead efforts to promote SRH and HIV awareness to safeguard young people.