Kwara, Nigeria— Ngozi (last name withheld), 36, is a single mother of one living in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State. She had a tragic indelible encounter during her teenage years that pushed her into early motherhood. It’s traumatic, stormy and dark— the horrendous experience of many rape survivors like Ngozi, who was 15 when she was raped.
“I was deflowered on that fateful day,” She spoke melancholicaly.
“I was pregnant but I was unaware.”
According to UNWomen, about 15 million adolescent girls across the world have faced several sexual assaults, especially forced sex and the age-grade of 15 to 19 years are “most at risk” of forced penetrative sex.
In a similar tensed-up development, UNICEF estimated that 15% of women became mothers before 18; and it truncated their health, education, esteem and livelihoods. This state also unleashed several stigma, rejection, violence and it forced early marriage on them.
In Africa, patriarchy, traditions, religious and societal sentiments have skewed and defined (the girl-child) womanhood as the weakest part of humanity— and despite the rapidness of urbanization and the growth of enlightenment in (almost) every African sphere, femininity is yet delivered from the overwhelming endangerment that constantly plague it.
Teenage mothers in Africa include: rape-victims-turned-mothers, forced brides and ignorant (or less sexually-educated) female teenagers. They are everyday recipients of demeaning stereotypes, cultural and religious backlash.
When a teenager is pregnant, I don’t think her life has been broken into pieces. What breaks her into pieces is not the pregnancy, it is the words we pass to her and the treatment she receives
“Women bear the cost and they are forced to absorb the shame of teenage pregnancy,” Amirat (a pseudonym), a north-central-university-undergraduate-mother of one (who became a single mother in the preceding year) said.
“My child’s father is a working-class-young man who had initially fostered pressure for marriage. Although, we indulged in a (single-consensual) sexual activity that led to pregnancy, he was unperturbably affected by the shame and stigma that unaccompanied my early pregnancy,” she added.
African Women, especially young adolescents and teenagers, are endangered.
In 2020 alone, the UNWomen reported that a woman (or girl) was the victim of the 58% murderous and villainy acts committed by close relatives and associates. The United Nations specified and lamented that 44% of African women, which accounts for more than “two in five,” have experienced several abuses related to gender-based violence.
No doubt, womanhood is progressive but the recent unimaginable and sad occurrences in Africa affirm that every stage and age-grade of womanhood is vulnerable to sexual assaults and violations—no feminine age-grade is immune to these abuses which often lead to unwanted pregnancy, aggravating the rate of traumatized single-teenage mothers in Africa.
Aishat Alubankudi, a Nigerian human rights activist cried out in 2017 about a Northern-Nigerian businessman who allegedly raped a six-month-old girl on the directive of a herbalist to enable him to have a child. In 2017, it was also reported in central Ghana that a man raped a four-year-old girl, but astonishingly, the community gods insisted that he must be free from scrutiny.
In 2021, a 16-year-old girl was raped by her neighbour in South Africa and the trauma nearly led to suicide when she realised that it had resulted to teenage-pregnancy.
“My Friend went missing, she was away from home for four days and it was during her rescue search that I got raped. Shortly, my parents died and I relocated to another state in Nigeria to begin a new life as a single mother,” Ngozi said, narrating her agonising rape story.
In most cases like Ngozi’s, rape survivors who become mothers are subjects of untold struggles and they are compelled to embrace the new life that is attributed to being a teenage mother.
The impact of climate change, moral decadence and political incompetence
Marie (last name withheld), is a teenage Sierra-Leonean and a poignant reflection of Africa’s climate crises, poor sexual education; and the incompetency of African political leadership.
“I was in form one when I got pregnant,” the 15- year-old teenager spoke about the country’s predicament that affected some of the female teenagers in Freetown during the rage of the pandemic. In a Dija production teenage pregnancy campaign (2020), she narrated in a video how the unavailability of social amenities paved way for several teenage pregnancies in Freetown.
“It all started when there was no water; my friend and I would search for water in a far away place. There was a boy in that location who liked me. He was very nice to me and he would get the water for me.”
It is difficult to get water in Marie’s village—most female adolescents and teenagers trek down the dusty roads—the seemingly endless paths where many women journey through for long hours (about 12hours) in search of water. This situation imposes several pressure, especially on the female teenagers, who fall victim to sexual predators that appear very subtle and kind.
I think the best way to avert the situation is to equalize the sexual education in both genders. The education should be on the consequences of engaging in pre-marital sex in both genders, so their male counterpart will know that the aftermath of the act can equally affect him too and not just the woman
According to UNICEF, less than 1% of Sierra Leone’s 8 million residents have piped water inside their homes and many families get their water from community taps, wells or local streams.
“We became close friends, we had sex and I got pregnant for him. He’s a school boy in SS3; he doesn’t do anything for me and I have to earn daily for sustainance. I really wish to return to school.” She remarked remorsefully.
Ultimately, these young opportunists take huge advantage of their innocence, the inadequateness of social infrastructure and the far distance, where the water-seeking-female teenagers come from. In 2021, UNICEF warned that children will feel the greatest impact of climate change, especially countries in West and Central Africa.
Post-conflict and post- pandemic West African countries like Sierra Leone still battle corruption, poor governance and high (youth) unemployment rate. The WorldBank says the West African state’s “impoverishment persist despite remarkable strides and reforms.”
Youthful exuberance and loss of concentration
Oyindamola (not her real name) was promising and she was the hope of her not-so-well single mother. In 2018, she was enthusiastic about her forthcoming Joint Admissions And Matriculations Board (JAMB) examination, a Nigerian entrance examination into tertiary institutions.
“I had passed my Senior-school-certificate examinations in the previous year and I was getting set for the JAMB exams,” she said.
“During the preparatory days, I hurriedly went to Lagos to do few things, but I also met with my lover. When the examination date drew closer, I realised that I was already pregnant for my lover who lived in Lagos—it shattered everything.
“He insisted that we terminate the pregnancy, but I was scared: it was my first child. He got angry and said I was on my own when I insisted on the child’s safety,” she recalled. “I was stigmatized in my community. On several occasions, a particular woman in my neighborhood would (nearly) drag me towards her for disdainful assessments.”
Smiling in a resentful manner, she said, “If there was no pregnancy, I’d have gone far.”
Although, the unexpected teenage- pregnancy did not thwart Amirat’s education like Oyindamola’s, yet, she received related stereotype and endured the similar shame that tromped her emotional sanity when she became pregnant in her 200 level year. “Many said they thought I was a decent girl because I’m so cool and gentle, they didn’t expect this from me, they held me in high esteem,” she recalled. “While I underwent that phase, the pregnancy brought shame to my parents.” She bemoaned, “I recall that we had sex (once) and I thought I’d not get pregnant, my child’s father seemed eager to get married and I was naive.”
Equalize sexual education in both genders
Queen Elizabeth school, Ilorin, was established at the bequest of the colonial masters in 1956. It is the first female secondary school in Northern Nigeria and like many other special single-sex schools in Africa, it was built for the purpose of integrating sound education and moral values in the girl-child. Sadiq Oreoluwa Ruth, the Vice-Principal, Special Duties of Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin, said, “It is only God who can save us from the distressfulness of sexual assaults and violations of young girls.
“It is heartbreaking, and I feel very sad for this generation. Fathers impregnate their teenage daughters, some brothers rape their sisters and our girls are lacking moral values; this is too heavy to bear.” Importunately and calmly, she expressed her optimism of a better system if the government could induce sex education in the curriculum of primary and secondary education.
On sex education, Chinenye Blessing, a popular Enugu-based (Facebook) relationship expert, in a media conversation, advanced Oreoluwa’s poise on the need to provide young boys and girls with the knowledge that will promote their (sexual) health and well-being as they grow into sexually healthy beings.
Additionally, her discourse was particular about the less attention given to the boy-child.
“There is not so much emphasis on the adolescent males on the need to abstain from sex, due to the belief that women loses more on the account of any (illicit) sexual escapades. This equally leads to women being victimized even during and after rape, forgetting the male culprit that carried the act.
“I think the best way to avert the situation is to equalize the sexual education in both genders. The education should be on the consequences of engaging in pre-marital sex in both genders, so their male counterpart will know that the aftermath of the act can equally affect him too and not just the woman.”
Taiwo Akinlami, a well-known child solicitor and researcher for UNICEF, USAID, Hope Worldwide Nigeria and other related child advocacies, berated the society and parents of teenage mothers who ostracize and cast away the teenage mothers. He asserted that a “teenage mother is a product of the environment, the parents and the things around her; and she did not become that alone. The society needs to put themselves together, empower and encourage teenage mothers. We should let them know that this (mistake) does not define them.”
“When a teenager is pregnant, I don’t think her life has been broken into pieces, what breaks her into pieces is not the pregnancy, it is the words we pass to her and the treatment she receives.”
The child solicitor added, “There has to be a commitment from other parts of the society to reach out to them. There are NGOs teenage-mothers can go to, that will help them from the beginning of the pregnancy. They will give aid that will put (the pieces of) their lives together to move on.”
In a media discussion, Sefiyat Akau, a communications officer with UNICEF Nigeria, articulated a reassuring statement: “UNICEF works across prevention and response to children who are at risk or survivors of all forms of violence. Under Spotlight, this includes identification and reporting of cases of violence such as rape, child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence against girls and boys. Also, ensuring that each child survivor and their families/caregivers have access to quality child protection services, mental health, justice through referral to appropriate services.”
NB: Names have been changed to protect the identities of the mentioned persons.