By the time she was celebrating her 17th birthday on August 8, 2020, Angella Phiri was in the maternity ward at Neno District Hospital waiting to deliver her first child.
Angella, who comes from Mpakati Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) in the south-western border district, gave birth to her bouncing baby girl 10 days after her own birthday.
“I delivered safely. There was no complication,” she says, beaming with a smile.
Angella may be among the few lucky teen mothers who delivered successfully and without complications.
Studies have found that teenage pregnancy, as various studies have revealed, is a major health and social problem.
The main drivers of teenage pregnancy include early sex and marriage, low contraceptive use, low educational levels, low socio-economic status, lack of knowledge of reproductive and sexual health, gender inequity, and physical/sexual violence.
The consequences on teenage mothers of unplanned pregnancy have been tragic and have compromised their physical, psychological and socioeconomic wellbeing, not just on them, but also their families and society at large.
Early motherhood can affect the psychosocial development of the infant. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be born prematurely with a low birth weight, predisposing them to many other lifelong conditions.
Children of teen mothers are at higher risk of intellectual, language, and socio-emotional delays.
One study suggested that adolescent mothers are less likely to stimulate their infant through affectionate behaviour such as touch, smiling, and verbal communication, or to be sensitive and accepting toward his or her needs.
Poor academic in the children of teenage mothers has also been noted, with many of the children being held back a grade level, scoring lower on standardised tests and/or failing to graduate from secondary school.
Daughters born to adolescent parents are more likely to become teen mothers themselves while sons born to teenage mothers are three times more likely to serve time in prison.
On the other hand, teen pregnancy and motherhood can influence younger siblings. One study found that the younger sisters of teen mothers were less likely to emphasise the importance of education and employment and more likely to accept human sexual behaviour, parenting and marriage at younger ages.
Neno District Council Social Welfare Officer, Thandiwe Katopola, discloses that although the council has not yet carried out a census to establish the number of teen mothers, teen pregnancies are quite huge in the district.
Katopola says with the help of organisations, the council has dissolved a number of teen marriages.
“Most of the teen mothers cite poverty and lack of parental support as drivers for their engagement in early sex and child marriages. But our biggest challenge, as the Social Welfare Office, is that we do not have the resources to conduct follow-up on teen mothers and girls who have been withdrawn from marriages,” she narrates.
Mid 2019, Community Action for Sustainable Development Organisation (Casdo) rolled out Securing Children’s Rights through Education and Protection (Screp) project to complement government efforts to arrest the unrelenting cases of early pregnancies and child marriages.
The project is being funded by the Norwegian Aid for Development Cooperation through Save the Children International Malawi, and seeks to promote child rights, education and protection in schools.
In its pilot phase, the five-year project is targeting 285,000 children in 267 schools in Lilongwe Urban, Mzimba South, Mwanza and Neno.
The implementing partners include the Association of Progressive Women, Blantyre Synod in Blantyre, Livingstonia Synod in Mzimba, Malawi Human Rights Commission, Women’s Legal Resource Centre, Montfort Special Needs Education College, and Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi.
Casdo Screp project officer Francis Chapasuka says lack of information on sexual and reproductive health rights among the youth is one of the factors of early pregnancies in Neno.
Chapasuka therefore says his organisation has intensified message dissemination on this area to ensure the youths are made aware of the family planning services and be able to access them.
“And to achieve our goal, we are working with other stakeholders such as the Mother Groups, teachers, initiation counsellors (anankhungwi), traditional leaders, health workers and the police. We have initiated dialogue platforms and interface meetings where teen mothers are active participants and are encouraged to highlight challenges they face in their lives,” he explains.
The role of the initiation counsellors and Mother Groups is to mobilise teen mothers to return to school.
Maureen Ngaiyaye, an initiation counsellor from Galeta 3 Village in T/A Chekucheku, says through Screp, they have managed to change the mindset of communities towards teen mothers as well as their parents.
Ngaiyaye discloses that previously, the communities regarded parents of the teen mothers as reckless; that they failed to provide adequate counsel to their children.
But people are now beginning to understand that it takes the whole village to raise a child.
“Previously, parents whose children have fallen pregnant outside wedlock were mocked and called all sorts of names. But this culture of finger-pointing is dying down,” says Ngaiyaye.
Angella was introduced to the Screp by a Mother Group from her village.
She attests that since she fell pregnant, the group has always been handy and it is providing her with moral and social support anytime she needs it.
“My parents are in Chiradzulu. But I don’t miss their presence that much because the Mother Group visits and advises me regularly. Even when I was writing my primary school certificate of education two weeks ago, they were by my side to assist in caring for my baby,” says Angella.