By Dalitso Masambuka
“We have to accept the fact that the world has changed, young people these days grow up quickly, they are discovering things that in our days we discovered as adults.”
A major challenge for any parent across the world is the inevitability that one day his or her child will one day attain adulthood and eventually discover sex. In Malawi’s conservative culture, preparing a child for that moment, for many parents, has often been fueled by silence, fear and secrecy for centuries. For Group village headman Wala of Machinga district, that shadow of silence and secrecy that shrouds the relationship between parents and children, has led to an increase in the number of teenage pregnancies and the number of girls dropping out of school in his village.
Banja la Mtsogolo’s has partnered with Save the Children to reduce teenage pregnancies through provision of contraceptives and delivering messages on the importance of contraceptive use among adolescents. This partnership has offered a sigh of relief to the elderly chief who worries about the many obstacles that prevent young people in his village from accessing contraceptives.
“We have to accept the fact that the world has changed, young people of this age grow up quickly, they are discovering things that in our days we discovered as adults, young people of these days are having sex at a tender age, whether we like it or not they will eventually have sex.”
“The problem is most young people fear to use contraceptives because they fear their parents. I believe through your open messages on contraceptive use parents will allow their children to access them” said Wala.
He also believes that apart from fear of rebuke and resentment from parents and society as a whole, most teenagers in his village fail to access contraceptives due to availability and affordability.
“The distance to the nearest health centre is far, as a result many teenagers have to walk long distances to access contraceptives, and in some instances contraceptives are not readily available. Your (BLM’s) outreach services delivery is timely because it will reduce the distance that young people have to walk to access contraceptives, we urge BLM to conduct these contraceptives services routinely said Wala.
Over the years research has shown that the demand for contraceptive use among teenagers and the population the sub-Saharan region and Malawi is on the increase. However, contraceptives often are too expensive and have erratic accessibility. Consequently, these factors are contributing to the increase in teenage pregnancies and the school drop rates in lakeshore districts like Mangochi.
Sixteen year old Agnesi Yusufu is one of many teenage mothers in the district who dropped of school due to pregnancy. She became a mother at the tender age of twelve years old and now regrets not using contraceptives when having sex
“I wish I could reverse the hands of time. If I could I would go back to the past. I would have opted to use contraceptives, or encouraged my partner to use a condom” said Agnes.
“When we are growing up we are raised to believe that young people who use contraceptives are promiscuous. BLM’s contraceptive provision has come at a right time for me, from now on I will use contraceptives.” she further added
At Rangala primary school in the area of group village Rangala, in the district of Mangochi, at least ten children each year drop out of school due to teenage pregnancies. According to Eliam Nkhoma, a teacher at the school, the overriding factor again is the fear of how society would portray one, as an adolescent, when they access contraceptives.
He admits that although government curricula covers sexual reproductive health, that alone is not enough to avert teenage pregnancies in schools and in the country.
“The current curriculum covers sexual reproductive health, we try to teach pupils about the importance of abstaining from sex and the use of contraceptives if they fail to abstain from sex, but reality is the few that fail to abstain get pregnant in the absence of contraceptives” said Eliam.
He hails BLM’s partnership with Save the Children, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), and FAWEMA as a right approach in reducing teenage pregnancies.
“The project is unique since it not only focuses on averting teenage pregnancy through the provision of contraceptives, young teenage mothers are also been reintegrated back in schools” said Nkhoma.
Another Barrier for Adolescents’ Accessing Contraceptives
Although the demand for contraceptive use among adolescents is at an all-time high in the sub-Saharan region and Malawi in particular, it remains unmet because of the absence of youth friendly health services. Most young people fail to access contraceptives because most of the services providers have some sort of relationship with their parents or someone who knows them in the community.
Maria Nyirenda, a health surveillance assistant, based at Malindi in Mangochi alludes to a contributing factor to the high rate of teenage pregnancies in the district “As health surveillance assistants we teach women and teenagers about the importance of using contraceptives, but mostly our services are restricted to the older women.”
She admits that their strong connection with the community has been a negative impact when it comes to providing contraceptives to young people.
“I have been working as a health surveillance assistant for over five years and have developed a strong relationship with the community, to some extent I think that has been one of the reasons why most teenagers feel ashamed to ask for contraceptives because they feel that I will report them to their parents. These outreach services will therefore feel the gap since they are specifically target them” said Nyirenda.
BLM’s Partnership with Save Children, Norad, and FAWEMA to reduce teenage pregnancies and reintegrate young girls back in school, is slowly chasing the shadow of silence, suspicion, and fear that shrouds the relationship between parents and children.