I am struck by the condescending view that teen pregnancy and parenthood are a normal reality of our times and that rather than condemn these young people, development and social service institutions should give them the chance to re-build their lives.
I do agree that teen pregnancy is fast becoming a social emergency whose origins lie in a complex set of factors, among them poverty, cultural sexuality values, rapid and poorly managed social liberalisation, breakdown of the family institution and outright moral degradation of the global society.
Faced with a choice, girls would go to school, but most of them do not have the faintest voice in what happens to them. The girl child finds herself in unattainable situations and it makes huge sense to begin to get a good balance between prevention of teen pregnancy and support services for those affected to re-start their life.
What really worries me is not so much that we have such challenges, but rather that its impacts are far reaching, and many of us seem to grasp neither the gravity nor the urgency of the matter. Malawi is losing hundreds of thousands of potential young women who with a little love and support would bounce back with so much energy to achieve and move forward.
The teen mother loses drive to move on because of the unrelenting stigmatisation of her situation, even by those who went the same route and should be more sympathetic. For a young teen who is already depressed by child birth and fear of the future, stigma and all it comes with only destroys her self-esteem and without support from family, friends, school and church many have gone on to find refuge in relationships that only lead to repeat pregnancies.
The majority of young mothers drop out of school because having a child seems to cancel their inalienable right to education, even where policy allows re-admission. Research reveals that those who brave re-entry into school tend to attend classes intermittently as they share time between attending classes, home study and the demands of motherhood.
The net effect is that such brave girls perform poorly and leave education once and for all to fend for the child and themselves without the requisite knowledge, skills and support to move forward. Meanwhile, it is only fair to say, the father is at large. In already poor households, rural or urban this throws both mother and child into a vicious circle of poverty very difficult to come out of.
If today we talk of gender-based violence and systematic abuse, this is part of the background. A considerable proportion of teens that fall pregnant do so in relationships with much older men whose interest is really not marriage, but rather exploitative opportunism.
Many children born to teen mothers grow up in resource poor homes, brought up by an immature, inexperienced mother who is at times prone to neglect and abuse of the child as a result of such immaturity. Little wonder we hear of stories of abandoned neonates not out of evil but sheer immaturity and fear of motherhood.
Research in this area underlines the risk of low birth weight, and all the impacts that low birth weight have on the total physical and mental development of the child. We also know that children born to young mothers have the highest risk of death before their first anniversary.
Both biological and social factors of child care work against the survival chances of the child from the first month of life. Indeed it takes good investment in human resources, equipment and other requirements for hospitals to be able to handle such cases effectively.
Further, we also know that the majority of children of teen mothers grow in homes that are un-stimulating, not least because of lack of child care skills and poverty. Deficient child development has a number of effects. Many will not do well in school and become underachievers throughout the system. Others maybe emotionally mal-adjusted and grow to become criminals, particularly male children.
The bottom line is that we cannot afford to neglect, tolerate or simply accommodate teen parenthood. In the same manner, we can only ill-afford to destroy the spirits of those affected, letting them reap what they sowed because its impacts affect whole nations.
—The author is an educationist, strategist and social policy analyst