Sunday, July 13, 2008

the leprosy of teenage pregnancy

thabi, sylvia, agreement, agnes, linkie and maeghan after an interview

this is me and thabi and nelisiwe after beading lessons for the income generation program


i am only describing what I have learned from the girls i am working with here in South Africa. the research is NOT representative of the entire continent of africa....

So two weeks have passed since arriving in south days have been filled with walking dusty roads to the homes of young women, booty shaking at a few braiis with the young mums, and documenting what i have been finding. I always struggle to explain situations without telling a story, so here is the tale of a few of these girls woven together.

Teenage pregnancy in rural south Africa is roughly equivalent to leprosy in mid-evil times. It’s a curse - a situation where one becomes an untouchable. Let’s start from the sex and go from there - sex is not a choice for most African women ... it’s an obligation and a job and one which they are trained to perform from a really early age. In some communities, girls are still married at the age of 13, expected to be pure virgins for their husbands. So girls are taught to obey men, and that sex is expected in an intimate relationship....South African rural societies are caught between two worlds – the Western world of Beyonce’s and beauty queens and the traditional societies of the bride price, where daughters are given in exchange for 10 cattle. And this is the tension these girls live in. Teenagers in Africa are just like teenagers in Europe – they experiment with sex. Then, it gets tricky. Condoms are not cool here. Despite HIV/AIDS and STIs, only maybe 1 in 10 use condoms regularly (more than once a month). It’s a sign of trust in your relationship to have sex without a condom, and girls are beaten and seen as unfaithful if they request the guy to use one. Does this make sense at all? Not to me....but that’s the story.

So now we have a lot of pregnant teenage girls. Lots. Like i said, 1 in 3 are pregnant before 19. This is where the tension comes in. When the community members and family members find out they are pregnant, the girls are shunned for being “impure”. Now they are no longer suitable for marriage in the traditional village systems. Parents tell their kids not to talk to these girls. They are seated at the back of the classroom so no one has to look at them... A lot of the girls i am speaking to hide their pregnancies under baggie clothes, and then hide from the world, not leaving the house for 3 or 4 months straight at the end of the pregnancy. They dropped out of school because teachers harassed them, and some where kicked out of their homes by relatives who were caring for them. The boys they are dating can’t marry them even if they want to, because these villages still use the practice of bride price. And with the going rate of a cow sitting at around $1000 US, the average girl in my program is worth about $15,000 US. So even if the boy loves her, he can’t afford to marry her until he graduates high school, gets a good job, and saves for about 30 years, as the average yearly income in the community is around $700 US per year.

When this program started, about 90% of the girls had dropped out of school. They started working as house maids to feed themselves and their kids, and were still shunned by the communities. All of the girls in these groups have also lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, so they are caring for little brothers and sisters as well.... Now they meet together every week, on Fridays after school, and have tea (which means bread and Roibos tea with 9 sugars per cup) and talk about what it means to be a mom. They talk about dreams for their futures, about the latest fashions and new music, and about normal teenage life. The transformations have been amazing – we have 90% of them back in school now, with a few eyeing up medical school applications in the new year. They still have their ups and downs, but it’s pretty rad to see how much strength they have found by just meeting together and realizing they aren’t alone. They told me stories of literally sneaking into the homes where families had hidden a pregnant girl, and praying with her and telling her about their group and helping her to leave and go to the doctor. Such cool beans. And they organized an anti-AIDS march earlier on this year, and a pregnancy awareness event. I was never that bold when i was 16.

So now I leave for Zambia in the morning, to a rural community on the Western side of the Copper Belt called Luansha to find out about the situations of the young women there. We are hoping to start up the program in August, and i’ll be interviewing potential participants to see what their challenges are, and community leaders so I can better understand how teenage pregnancy is seen by the community members.....It’s gonna be a bit more rough because i am without the internet, and i’m living on a farm about a 5 hour bus ride from the nearest city, but it will be an adventure....for now i need sleep.....much love....maeghanjune


Blogger Carolyn said...

Hi Maeghan,
Wow what a great piece you just wrote. Hope your health is good now. We missed you yesterday at Ruth Woon's shower at her Mom's place. You would have loved being there. China tea cups, me dressed up as a toilet paper bride, Olivia tried on her flower girl dress, party sandwiches, choclate covered strawberries, and of course the funny ribbons and bow hat Ruth had to wear. Oh, did I mention the choclate mousse canolli's. I know thats mean to hear about that when you so far away, but we missed you hon. I know you would want to know. Check Jessica's facebook it probably has pics. I will try to tag. Love ya,

11:33 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Been thinking about you and praying. I miss you Lovely. Hugs, hugs, and more hugs. It looks good on you... we'll talk.


7:22 PM  
Blogger Aiban said...

Hi Maeg,

Whiel you are in Zambia, I hope you get to meet my Uncle (see email). Though we are not related, he is as close to me as an Uncle.He has been in based in Zambia since 2006 I think. Liked reading your piece. Hope you are fine and that your work is going well. Take care my dear friend. Hugs

3:51 PM  

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