Teenage Pregnancy Becoming a Norm in Bong Village
GBARTA, Kokoyah District – Kids grow up fast in some remote villages in Liberia. With limited options to attend school, many opt to marry at age 14 or 15, or even younger, and start having children of their own.
When she was first pregnant at 15, Beatrice went into the forest to give birth, following local custom in her ethnic group. She barely understood what was happening, and had no one with her with the skills to help if anything went wrong. Beatrice survived, but her premature baby did not.
At 19, Beatrice is expecting again. This time, a community midwife has given her a prenatal exam and advice about staying healthy.
Deborah Diggs, a graduate of the Phebe School of Nursing in Suakoko, Bong County, now visits Beatrice’s village once every three week. She has advised Beatrice to deliver her baby at a clinic to be safe.
But Beatrice is not likely to go because she doesn’t have money to fund her trip. The clinic is in another village, which is about two hours on foot and an hour ride on motorcycle.
“If we had a health center here, I would use it,” Beatrice says. “But it’s too hard to get to the next village. I will probably give birth in the bush again.”
Geographic isolation and a lack of opportunity contribute to the perpetuation of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy in isolated communities like Beatrice’s.
The age-old practice persists despite overall progress in addressing women’s health needs. In Liberia, the government has built health facilities in some remote areas and deployed skilled providers like Deborah.
However, the country’s adolescent birth rate is still high. Each year, nearly one out of ten Bong County girls between 15 and 19 gives birth, according to the latest Social Indicator Survey by the county’s health team.
The proportion is much higher in remote areas, where some cultural practices, such as giving birth in the wild, pose additional risks to the health of young mothers and their babies.
Staying in school is key to reducing pregnancy
Starting a family is still considered the ‘normal’ thing to do for young teenagers in some communities in Kokoyah District, especially for those out of school, and parents typically don’t object when their children decide to marry.
In Theresa Brown’s village – Compound Two, Kokoyah District – few children attend classes for more than a year or two. The school for higher classes is in another village.
Many parents don’t see the value of sending their children there, particularly girls, when they could be helping with housework instead.
Theresa and her husband dropped out of six grade to marry. She got pregnant right away and again soon after the first child was born. The young parents, now 19, want to wait two years before having a third baby, but they don’t know about modern contraceptive methods and are not using any.
Living off the land in is a constant challenge for the couple. Both wife and husband work from dawn to dusk to feed and care for their family. They want to build their own house, but dwindling forest resources are making it increasingly difficult to earn income from collecting firewood.
“If we had stayed in school, we could get jobs,” says Theresa. “We’d both like to go back to school, but it isn’t possible now.”
Enabling girls to stay in school is key to reducing pregnancy among adolescents and expanding their options, according to new report on the challenges of adolescent pregnancy.
“If a girl is educated, healthy, safe and skilled, she will invest in herself, her present and future family, her community and in the end this will help to build a healthy nation,” says Dr. Jonathan Flomo, Bong County Health Officer.
“To increase school enrollment in poor villages like this, residents need to be convinced that education brings real economic benefits. And to improve education in ethnic communities, linguistic and cultural barriers must be overcome along with geographic challenges,” he said.
“We have to improve primary education and secondary schools, to a point where everyone sees that education can really lead to better livelihoods and living conditions”.
Spike in teenage pregnancy
According to Bong County Health Team, the town of Gbarta, Kokoyah District alone has registered over seven cases of teen pregnancies from July to September.
Eliza Cooper, 18, a resident of Gbarta, said she was lured into a relationship with a married man in July.
“At the time he proposed, he committed to marrying me if I got pregnant and that we would be living together,” she said.
But he left her when she told him she was expecting.
Many girls in her situation are pushed into marriage. But Eliza is fending for herself and does not have enough food or other essentials.
Dr. Flomo said in 2020 there has been an increase in pregnancies between the ages of ten and 19 compared to the previous year.
“That’s 29 out of every 100 pregnancies in young ones between the ages of ten and 19 and if you look at the same period last year in 2020, that has increased to 35% which means that out of every 100 pregnancies 35 are between the ages of 10 and 19,” he said.
The rise in teen pregnancies means a girl’s education is disrupted, according to Dr. Flomo.
“The future is the young people today and we have to invest in these young people. So, if they fall pregnant it means their future has been disturbed, and if they fall pregnant today at 14, how is their life going to be? So, the poverty cycle continues,” Dr. Flomo said.
A 16-year-old girl from David Dean Town currently doing her senior secondary school education shared her experiences having fallen pregnant after she was raped by her step- father.
“In fact I’ve resisted him for years. He took advantage of the absence of my mother and my not going to school, to force me into bed with him; now look, here I am, seven-months away from here I should be giving birth,” she lamented. Her dream of completing education and prospects of her promising future for now, seem dim.
She is not the only victim of such harmful practices.
Over the years Bong County has experienced high-rates of teenage pregnancies and child-marriages, the emergence of Corona virus has seen a surge in social injustices on the girl-child.
Stories from victims are telling and they are supported by statistics recorded which are painting a gruesome picture of the extent of violence against women and girls, according to a social welfare officer in David Dean Town, whose jurisdiction has registered a record 16 cases between March and August.
This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through the Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with FrontPageAfrica.