Baby Blessed wriggles and wails in discomfort in his young mother’s lap. Winnie pulls out her breast to feed her sick child and quiet his cries. She looks out at the swampy backyard behind her home as if she would rather be any place other than here.
By Mae Azango. Originally published in FrontPage Africa newspaper on February 14, 2012.
Jessica Tarr, nicknamed Winnie, lives with her two younger siblings and no parents in Chicken Soup Factory, an impoverished community on the outskirts of Monrovia. She is only 16 years old but already a single mother.
Her family house is a decaying zinc-roofed shack with thatched mat walls and a damp dirt floor. Winnie blames the poor condition of her house and the lack of money for her son’s failing health. She worries everyday how she can properly care for her son.
“Our house does not have a floor, and the roof is leaking,” says Winnie. “The place is too cold for my baby, so he is sick from malaria and cold, and no money to go to the hospital.”
Winnie is one of thousands of single teenage mothers in Liberia who face the harsh reality of raising a child after being deserted by the fathers of their children. One in three Liberian girls will give birth before their 20th birthday – one of the highest rates of teen motherhood in the world, according to Save the Children. Anti-poverty experts say this is a major factor holding Liberia back.
“Some of these teen mothers do not know how to take care of themselves,” says John Kollie, adolescent coordinator at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. “They do not even know their bodies, so caring for their babies is a serious problem.”
Stopping girls from getting pregnant in their teens has been a major focus of global efforts to alleviate poverty in poor countries like Liberia. A girl who reaches her 20s without having a child has much greater prospects in life. She is more likely to get an education and earn an income that will help support her family. Increasing the number of productive women benefits all of society.
In Liberia, young girls like Winnie often do not have access to family planning or birth control, much less health education.
Like most teen mothers, Winnie was left on her own, with no financial support from the baby’s daddy, and worse, no help from her parents. She remains the sole head of her household – a heavy burden for a girl no more than a child herself.
Blessed’s father, Jerome, drives a motorcycle for a living. Winnie sees him pass by her house every once in a while. He never stops to check in on her or the baby, she says.
Jerome was 21 and living with his parents at the time he got Winnie pregnant. When Winnie first learned she was expecting at 13, she says she naively believed in Jerome’s declarations of love. She chose to keep their baby.
Yet upon learning about her condition, Jerome told her that he did not want to risk telling his parents about the baby for fear that they would throw him out of the house. So he abandoned Winnie. Now Winnie is left alone, struggling to make ends meet and filled with second thoughts about being a new mother.
“I am regretting why I had this child for him because he does not have time for me and the child, and we don’t have anybody to help us,” she says.
“Before the children reach the age of nine, they are already exposed to having sex,” says Kollie. “And before many get to the age of fifteen, they have already had their first child.”
Some have multiple children with multiple men.
For the fortunate ones, their parents help raise the babies. Others like Winnie must fend for themselves from a young age.
Winnie’s father left when she was five years old. Winnie’s own mother has not been home in almost a year. She abandons her children for months on end to earn money for herself in the bush. Winnie and her family do not receive any of this money. For this reason, Winnie explains, she sought outside help from her boyfriend and eventually found herself carrying his child.
“When my mother left to go in the bush to burn coal to sell, I had no food and no one was around to advise me,” says Winnie. “So that is how I jumped in man business soon and got pregnant because I did not have anyone to help me.”
Winne’s aunt, Nymah Morris, additionally explains, “She got involved in early sex because my sister left the girl here all by herself and went in the bush for over a year. She did not have anybody to guide her to go the right way, so she found a boyfriend because she had to be able to eat.”
Now Winnie is struggling to provide even one meal a day for Blessed and her younger brother and sister. She lives on the few handouts she receives from neighbors and from Nymah, who tries to help despite her own meager resources.
Nymah says Winnie’s story should be a cautionary tale to other young girls.
“Having sex before your time causes you to get pregnant and do what you are not supposed to do, and if you have the child, you could end up like my niece,” says Nymah.
Many girls become pregnant because they are pushed into sexual relationships through peer pressure or poverty. Acting Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Bendu Tulay, also attributes the rising rate of teen pregnancies to the lack of parental guidance, which forces young girls like Winnie to make decisions for themselves.
“It is like children having children, so the dependencies are very high,” says Tulay. “The reason is because, after the war, family structure broke down and children were left cater to themselves. And many of them became early mothers in that process.”
Those who became young mothers during the war, like Winnie’s mother, were ill-equipped to care for their children and instead often abandoned them to care for themselves.
Not all young mothers are left completely unsupported by the fathers of their children or their families.
Teenage mother Aletha Chesson, 17, dropped out from fifth grade when she became pregnant. Her baby, who is five months old, is in better health than Winnie’s child.
Aletha, too, finds herself in a better position than Winnie because her child’s father, who crushes rocks for a living, provides for their baby with his little income. They live together as a family in a painted zinc shack down the road from Winnie in Chicken Soup Factory. The house is simple but a marked improvement compared to Winnie’s dilapidated residence. Still, Aletha is not content.
“I am not happy that I have the baby because I am not in school,” Aletha explains. “But when I got pregnant, I was scared to take it out because plenty girls are dying from abortions these days.”
Becoming pregnant not only leads to financial pressures but also impacts young girls’ educational futures. Many girls who get knocked up feel they have no choice but to go through with the unwanted pregnancy. So they leave school and lose their chance at a brighter future – for themselves and for their baby.
What is especially worrisome, notes Tulay, is that having babies at a young age is a growing social trend among teens. An increasing number of girls are choosing to have a baby as a means to get attention and fit in.
“In fact, these days, girls take pregnancy as part of the fashion, and they show off when they are pregnant, unlike our days where we would be ashamed and hide from our friends when we get pregnant,” says Tulay. “But is not good to be young and start having children because it brings about poverty and high dependency rate.”
The teenage pregnancy problem, and its subsequent poverty, is becoming a national crisis in Liberia. The government and international partner organizations are putting into place a system to tackle this crisis. Efforts include massive awareness campaigns focusing on family planning and birth control. But many young girls simply are not interested and refuse to take advantage of the family planning services and youth service programs in place, points out Tulay.
Like Eletha, Winnie always desired to continue her schooling. Now Winnie says she cannot bear to watch her friends go to school on a daily basis while she is forced to stay home caring for her family alone.
“I am feeling bad because I am supposed to be in the twelfth grade by now, but I can’t go because of the child,” she says.
Winnie hopes to complete high school one day and become a nurse. The question is how she will ever go back to school. She can barely feed herself and her family. Whatever little amount of money she has is used for food and basic provisions. She does not know when her mother will return. And Jerome, the baby’s father, who claimed to have loved her from the beginning, has fallen out of her life.
Winnie acknowledges that it might be too late for her, and maybe even for her baby. But she has this advice for the young girls of Liberia: “Go to school because man time can’t pass and when you learn, no man can bluff you. Wait for your time before you have a child.”
Mae Azango is a fellow of New Narratives, a project supporting independent media in Africa. See more at HYPERLINK “http://www.newnarratives.org” www.newnarratives.org