By Emmanuel Kanike
Recently, the media has reported an increase in unplanned pregnancies among school-going girls nationwide attributed to prolonged closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Teen pregnancies should be understood in relation to household wealth, education levels and location.
According to the Malawi Demographic Health Survey of 2016, 31 percent of rural girls aged 15-19 start child-bearing compared to 21 percent of their urban peers.
Teen girls from poor household (44 percent)are more likely to start child-bearing than those from better-off households (15 percent).
Similarly, rural women with little or no education start having sex earlier than those in urban areas, with more than secondary education and from better-off families.
This increases chances of adolescent pregnancies among the rural, less-educated and poor.
These factors should be considered when addressing adolescent sexual and reproductive health issues.
A recent study by Judith R. Glynn and others shows the risk of adolescent pregnancy increases when one is out of school and risk of being out of school increases when one is pregnant.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that girls from poor households are exposed to harsh realities of prioritising livelihood strategies such as petty trading or farming over school.
This increases their susceptibility to quit schooling and chances of becoming pregnant.
Now, when calls to reopen schools are deemed a protective measure for adolescents, we should never forget that adolescent pregnancies are not a result of closed schools alone.
Even in the closed schools, adolescents from better-off and more educated urban households have a lower risk of getting pregnant compared to those from rural, less educated and poor households.
The government and civil society organisations need to tone down on investing in interventions which do not get to the root of the problem. They only provide temporally relief.
Policies that allow girls to go back to school after child birth, investing in teaching girls life skills and how to make menstrual pads, facilitating access and uptake of sexual and reproductive health services, arresting men who defile underaged girls to deter would-be wrongdoers and many more, contribute towards keeping girls in school and reducing teen pregnancies.
However, no matter how much sexual and reproductive health education and services are provided to adolescents from a rural, poor household with less educated guardians, they remain at risk of getting pregnant.
Even if we invest billions in HIV education for girls, it is sheer imagination to reverse trends of adolescent pregnancies if poverty characterises their adolescents’ households.
It is time the government and civil society implemented strategic interventions that root out poverty from the rural households.
This will eventually contribute to increasing the number of girls who stay in school because they can afford most basic needs.
For instance, how much investment do civil society organisations make to facilitate Malawian-owned factories that can process and produce export quality products and create well-paying jobs in rural areas?
How much improvement of road conditions does government do in rural areas to trigger trading between rural areas and their closest urban satellites?
We are not talking about investments of uplifting a household without a goat to own two in three years.
Neither are we talking about expensive investments in irrigation schemes managed by households who hardly recover from need for humanitarian assistance.
Strategic steps such as the removal of import duty for solar products allow investment in sustainable energy equipment for building factories in rural areas, thereby creating decent jobs for rural households and ending poverty.
Investing more in such initiatives would be like a vaccine to ending poverty and reducing adolescent pregnancies instead of treating symptoms.