It is such a horrible indictment on Zambia that 58 years after independence, it is the girl, whatever her age – who becomes pregnant – who forfeits her right to education, especially in our government primary and secondary schools. It does not take the genius of an Albert Einstein and rocket science to understand that in fact this girl, who usually goes on to become a teenage mother, more than any other child badly and urgently, needs education. Such a girl needs full formal quality education to adapt to motherhood, acquire the schooling, education, knowledge and skills to look after herself and the child she now must take care of, and to become a useful member of society.
Many decades ago, when I was in my teens, I do remember girls just disappearing from school, apparently having just “dropped out”, without anyone bothering to explain to all of us in school what actually had happened. When in my last two years of secondary school I went to a rural boarding secondary school, I discovered how some of the girls “disappeared” from school: upon discovering that they were pregnant, some made a secret agreement with the boy involved who then wrote a letter to the parents of the girl promising marriage usually upon completing his secondary school education. This way, the boy stayed in school and the pregnant girl quietly left school for the village, never to be seen in school again.
I actually later discovered that during the holidays, some of my class mates were actually married to the girl they had made pregnant, and lived together, meanwhile the boy continued with his education. In those days, it used to be that if a school boy had made a girl pregnant, it was proof that he obviously had engaged in sex with the girl, and this was not only frowned upon by the school, but it was an offense a boy could be dismissed from school for. As for the girl, becoming pregnant spelt the end of her schooling.
In those television, cell phone and internet free days, “sex” was not a subject so freely spoken about, let alone easily engaged in, by school boys and girls. Of course both sexes whispered about it, compared notes, giggled and laughed about it, but mostly we were terrified of pregnancies. Then there was the church and its teachings. If, like me, you came from a serious church going Christian family, you were always aware your family and community would certainly excommunicate you if you made a girl pregnant. It was worse obviously for the girl: the shame you would bring upon yourself and family, and the stigma attached to an unmarried mother were quite strong deterrents, against early teen sex, teen pregnancies and teen marriages, where I grew up.
Getting pregnant, and making a girl pregnant, in those days, were among the things every girl and boy avoided as best they could: both were frightening in their consequences upon the girl, boy and their families. Contraceptives such as condoms were not so readily available, and so abstention was the surest way of avoiding disrupting your education, especially if you were doing well at school. To say all this is not to accuse today’s teenagers of being less afraid of, and worried about, early teen pregnancies, marriages and disruption of schooling; it is simply to point out the obvious: there are other factors well beyond the control of teens which lead to early sex, pregnancies and marriages.
There are many complex biological, social, economic, cultural, traditional and age and peer specific factors which, combined, fail to prevent early sex activities, teen pregnancies and teen marriages. What is clear though, is that when a teenage girl becomes pregnant, is made a teen wife and becomes a teen mother getting a good education becomes an absolute necessity, especially in our social and economic circumstances in Zambia. Very few events in the life of a teen disrupts life more dramatically and disastrously than early sex, teen pregnancy and teen marriage. In a perfectly normal world, none of these should happen at all.
Ideally, young people should start sexual activities involving sex only when all the biological, social, cultural, traditional and economic conditions are met. These conditions would include meeting the teachings of the young person’s religion too. At this point the young person would be fully aware of the consequences of their sexual behaviour, and competent to deal with them. Without being prescriptive, the young person so indulging in sex would be fully responsible for themselves, and respect, fully, the other person; presumably and ideally both would be fully aware of their behaviour and consequences. Sadly, the real world never provides such perfect conditions, as most honest people will testify! And so, teen sex does take place, teen pregnancies occur and teen marriages continue to take place, notwithstanding the campaigns against these things by government, civil society, communities, traditional authorities, families, churches and schools.
The boy too – rather than adopting a “holier than thou attitude” society needs to sympathetically and with the necessary understanding ensure that he too acquires the necessary schooling, education, knowledge, skills and other abilities to enable him play his rightful roles and duties by the child and mother. If we sustain the understanding that the teens who find themselves in these circumstances, and they are in millions in Zambia, do so as a result of a complex combination of biological, social, cultural, traditional, economic, and other forces none of them are anywhere near comprehending and controlling, we will not fail to empathise and offer our solidarity, to such teens. To say this is not to condone promiscuous behaviour and all forms of conduct on the part of teens which expose them to early sex, unplanned and undesired pregnancies and teen marriages: it is simply to acknowledge that when any of these things happen, the whole of society, including the young people involved, has failed to prevent these things from happening, and must take collective responsibility.
It is the greatest responsibility anyone can have, to look after an infant and to see it develop and grow into a successful person. Denying full comprehensive parenting and other vital schooling, education, knowledge and skills to a young parent is to condemn both the parent and the baby to a horrible life; it is cruelty par excellence. This should all be self-evident.
Our national inability to take care of our children, all of them, whatever circumstances they fall into, especially when they become parents as teens, simply further pushes us deeper into our national poverty. An uneducated single parent of whatever gender still needs shelter, food, clothes, water, electricity, leisure, school, and so on. Denying such a child specialised parenting education and depriving him/her of education simply compounds our poverty status, as a country.
It so happens in fact that the greatest numbers of teen pregnancies and teen marriages are in our poorest parts of Zambia; in our rural areas, and this is as it should be because we have failed, 58 years after independence, to transform and develop rural life and give a meaningful life to Zambians in the rural areas – we have turned our rural areas instead into the most concentrated sites of poverty.
To fight early sex activities, teen pregnancies and marriages will require more than campaigns by civil society formations and their foreign funders: it will require conscious, serious, planned efforts by government to transform Zambian rural and urban life and eliminate poverty, legislate for compulsory schooling and education especially for teen parents, and of course mobilise society for general social and economic transformation and development. Such transformation cannot be left to the “private sector” or any one section of Zambia’s society: only a massive national campaign coordinated by government in all spheres of our lives can finally eliminate the scourges of early sex, teen pregnancies and teen marriages from Zambia.
We must defend the right to learn, to full quality education, of all children.
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