By Ayomide Oluseye
Growing up, I was always warned and told not to get pregnant by my parents, grandmothers, teachers and religious leaders. If I got pregnant, there would be consequences—drop out of school, stop going to church (because I had become a “child of the world”), move to a village far away to protect my parents’ reputation.
You see, being a female child, my parents’ reputation, especially my mother’s, depended on how groomed and well-trained I appeared. By well-trained, I mean not getting pregnant out of wedlock; so, I was conditioned to see pregnancy out of wedlock as always bad. The society did the same to me. Whenever I saw posters of unmarried teenage mothers, they were always made to look poor and hungry; holding on to a kwashiorkor looking-like baby. So, it was only logical for me to assume that this would always be the outcome of teenage pregnancy. Like many others, I soon began to strongly believe that teenage pregnancy and motherhood was the only singular occurrence that led to negative health and socio-economic outcomes.
As I grew older, my perspectives began to get challenged. I realised that Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, Sofia Vergara and Nigeria’s Genevieve Nnaji and Waje were teenage mothers; that part of their stories was hardly told, however. It was like the society had covered up these aspects of their lives to deter us from thinking that teenage mothers can ever have positive outcomes. I have always wondered why society does this. Are they scared of a decline in morality? Is it some sort of economic preservation? But then I ask again, isn’t the stigma too much of a price to pay to ensure that we maintain order in the society? Doesn’t this breathe misogyny, patriarchy and sexism?
I realised that Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, Sofia Vergara and Nigeria’s Genevieve Nnaji and Waje were teenage mothers; that part of their stories was hardly told, however.
Also, the way sanctions are imposed put girls at a disadvantage. The girls are the ones that drop out of school; they are the ones that are shamed as immoral and irresponsible. Boys, on the other hand, will always be boys. So, while the ladies are socialised to be highly disciplined and are stigmatised when they make a mistake, boys will be boys. Thus, it is not uncommon to see pregnant teenagers who try any means to get rid of a pregnancy despite abortion being illegal in Nigeria. Many are not safe from the consequences of these illegal abortions, sometimes from the hands of quacks and in unsanitary conditions. There have been cases of septic abortions and deaths. You’d expect an uproar, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, this is not the case. The claims by parts of the media and experts are that “teenage pregnancy is the leading cause of death among female teenagers in Nigeria”.
‘They should use a condom then,’ you might want to recommend, but this is Nigeria where girls are told that virginity is sacred; it is their honour, a gift to be presented to their husbands on their wedding night. As a result, many girls are scared to walk up to hospitals and pharmacies to get and receive advice on the use of contraceptives because they know that they will be branded as wild or prostitutes. It is no wonder that contraceptive usage rate among teenagers in Nigeria is at 8%, one of the lowest in the world.
Our maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate and poverty rate are not declining at the rate that we expect in Nigeria and teenage pregnancy and motherhood have been factored as some of the causes. You might want to ask why. Well, the evidence indicates that pregnant teenagers do not use ante-natal care and so there are complications during delivery; they also show that teenage mothers are very poor and contribute to the poverty rates in the country. The issue with this is that we have just accepted the information without looking at it critically.
Pregnancy is risky irrespective of age and it can be difficult to manage; that is why there is maternity leave, where pregnant women can take a break from work and studies and come back to them when they are ready. Studies have also shown that pregnancies at older ages are risky and that there are higher incidences of developmental problems amongst children of women who give birth at older ages, but this is hardly ever talked about in the media or Nigeria academia. Teenagers that are poor and get pregnant are likely to also have similar outcomes with their fellow counterparts who are also poor but do not get pregnant.
Is it then fair to say that teenage pregnancy is the reason for high-school drop-out when we give older women maternity leave? Is it fair to not allow teenage mothers to return to school when we give older women the opportunity to go back to their careers after their paid maternity leave? Is it fair to say that teenage pregnancy is a cause of maternal and infant mortality when we know that they will be shamed by health professionals when they come and register for these services? Is it fair to keep stigmatising them when we have not played our own part in ensuring that they have better outcomes?
The problem, it seems, is not with the pregnancy or the motherhood but with the age (and, sometimes, marital status) at which they occur. Why should a person be punished and alienated from society for getting pregnant at a young age at exactly the point where she needs society the most? This is a perception that we have to change.
Ayomide Oluseye is a PhD candidate at The Open University, UK. She researches and writes on teenage pregnancy and motherhood in Nigeria.