Sunday, April 21, 2024

Teenage pregnancy – a social death for young girls

A growing number of Batswana girls are becoming mothers even before becoming adults. In 2016  the Ministry of Education in collaboration with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) conducted a rapid study to determine the rate of drop out due to pregnancy and causes of such pregnancy. For the year 2016, the country had six drop outs of 16 536 in pre-primary, 271 out of 315 261 in primary school, 1 194 out of 116 068 in junior secondary and 477 out of 57 203 in senior secondary” and the trend was reported to be increasing.

The problem of teenage pregnancy however is more than just dropping out of school. Founder of Mental Health Alive Initiative in Gaborone, Tshepiso Teseletso says,” The stigma surrounding teens who become pregnant is that they are/become “unmotivated, irresponsible, and incompetent parents” . They are often considered more sexually active or having had more sexual partners than their peers (neither of which have been proven) and viewed by some as a moral failing or an issue with society. This stigma does not just occur in the classroom among their peers but also potentially when seeking pre-natal & pediatric care for themselves and their child(ren) among medical professionals. Furthermore, when this stigma is coupled with identifying factors such as socioeconomic status among others it can lead to serious health inequity for these teens. What society at large can do is, adopt a more compassionate stance because these are young girls and women who have babies they can love and grow with. Adolescents have always had babies and we know that they can be successful young women and mothers if given support, dignity and respect. Acknowledge that support from teachers and school administrators can keep them in school and facilitate their education, which is associated with better planning, better work trajectories, better health.”

Sadly teenage mothers are routinely seen as having physical, psychological, mental, emotional and social problems as well as being poor parents. Many people assume teenage mothers are troubled, dependant, promiscuous – the list of pejorative adjectives goes on and on. However, these descriptors malign young mothers. Ironically, negative stereotypes people hold about young mothers may make it more likely they will become pregnant again.

Orapeleng Phuswane-Katse, a medical physician with the Ministry of Health says, “Healthcare workers need to start asking themselves questions and evaluating themselves.They can ask themselves about their own often unconscious beliefs. How might they manifest in their interactions? How might they oppress teen mothers? And how might they disadvantage their babies and children?They can ask themselves, their colleagues, and their office staff about resources they can make available to teen mothers and their babies. How do these compare to resources offered to older mothers or to less marginalized teens who are not pregnant? How might they evaluate the language they use with peers and young families?They can ask themselves what it would be like to be a teen parent, and what might they need to be successful.They can question policies that disadvantage teen mothers and their babies, and support policies that help them.They can ask patients and clients about their experiences working with healthcare professionals and use that feedback to guide future interactions and challenge professional beliefs”.

Many would be surprised to know that a significant proportion of young women who have babies in their teens go on to do better in their lives than peers who do not have babies. Some get better jobs, become independent, move up the social gradient. A significant number actually further their education. Most teenage mothers come from disadvantaged populations -marginalized and traumatized populations that are already stigmatized. Some grow up in poor families that are stressed by divorce, poverty and/or transient relationships ; live with adults who have mental health or substance or alcohol use problems; live on streets that are unsafe and in neighbourhoods that are environmentally challenged. They are witnesses to violence. Many are victims to maltreatment themselves. These women are survivors of adverse childhood experiences, which impose stress and threaten health in all domains. Making things even more difficult for them, these are groups that are highly stigmatized. Healthcare providers are often experienced as stigmatizing by teenage mothers. Many teenage mothers are struggling as are their children. They are smart and bright but for chance and the fate of being born with profound social disadvantages they could be just as successful as other teenagers. However, some young mothers can and do pull themselves out of the chaos of their childhood even though more fortunate members of their communities including healthcare providers, teachers and policy makers assume they are where they are because they deserve it. Stigma reduces access to resources – schools, healthcare access etc. Stigma is manifested through interpersonal interactions in shops, on public transit, in healthcare offices etc. It acts systematically and is embedded in policy. They believe these kids brought it upon themselves; that they are less capable, less smart, lazier, less honest. These biases change the way professionals view and treat young mothers. This is the essence of stigma. Among other things, stigma causes stress. It piles up on itself and multiples its impact. It can add to the stress of adverse childhood experiences and continue throughout teenage mother’s lives to make every step more difficult for them and their children. Anxiety about teenage pregnancy masks usually deep-seated social fears. It touches on many and various sensitive issues. This includes prevailing ideologies of childhood, contemporary expectations of womanhood, anxieties about the traditional family. Consequently teenage pregnancy has been defined as a contemporary scapegoat and moral panic. Teenage pregnancy also marks a transgression from societal expectations and the ‘natural’ process of transition through adolescence. It is therefore a symbol of personal deviance especially when the dominant perception is that the ‘wrong’ girls are having babies. The continuing stigmatisation of teenage mothers is harmful because of the profound effects it has on the lives of young mothers and their children. Stigma leads teenage mothers to report feeling fear, shame, resentment, anger distress and lacking in confidence. It leads to a ‘social death’ for young mothers. The resulting isolation and social exclusion has a negative impact on the mental and physical health of young mothers. Experiences of stigma from professionals and services dampens trust and increases the likelihood that young parents will avoid seeking help, miss appointments or even drop out of school. Stigma is what happens when a human characteristic gets treated by a society or community as shameful or tainted. While schools and communities try to scare pregnant teenagers away from abortion, they also don’t accept or support young parents.

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