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A young woman from Zimbabwe writes about adolescent pregnancy and the experiences of her peers as part of our Stories Behind the Statistic series, produced by the IYWG for the Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists.

Working directly with young people in Zimbabwe, I have seen how adolescent pregnancy is a harsh reality that many young girls encounter. For these young girls, becoming pregnant is an ordeal that is hardly ever planned and is often the result of social, economic and financial circumstances that rob them of their autonomy.  

Because of very difficult economic conditions, many young women engage in intergenerational relationships.

For example,  one 14-year-old girl told me how being offered small gifts including sweets and chips resulted in her sexual relationships with older men, causing her to become pregnant, get married early, and endure an unsafe abortion. Other young girls hope to contribute to their family’s income by working on farms, and one girl told me how this has increased her risk of sexual violence. She has to travel long distances to fetch firewood and work in the fields. Being so far away from her home, without many people around, puts her at risk of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse or rape while working in the fields has left some young girls unwillingly pregnant and exposed to HIV and STI infection.

Sometimes young girls and women are overpowered by societal pressure exerted on them to get married early.

Society gives unmarried women nicknames such as “Chipo Chiroorwa,” which means “get married now or risk becoming ridiculed.” I have seen how, by succumbing to such pressure, these girls then have to deal with the overwhelming psychological trauma of becoming pregnant very young, giving up their dreams, and being forced into parenthood without necessarily being prepared for it. 

Natsai, aged 18, told me how becoming pregnant when she was 15 resulted in nothing but loss: loss of love, time, education and physical health. The first four months of the pregnancy were traumatic because she suffered quietly. She did not dare share her news with anyone because she feared rejection, stigma and discrimination from her family and community.

When her aunt discovered Natsai was pregnant, her aunt chased her from home, and she eloped with her boyfriend who was unemployed. She dropped out of school to look for a job on a nearby farm to fend for herself and her baby.  Natsai’s story typifies those of many girls and young women whom I have seen putting on brave smiles that hide sad stories about the detrimental effects that adolescent pregnancy has had on their lives.

Most young women I know who became pregnant were not ready to get married or drop out of school. Many were exposed to HIV infection, underwent unsafe abortions, and will deal with rejection all their lives. They have faced many adverse consequences as a result of getting pregnant before they are physically, emotionally, and socially mature enough to be mothers.

There is an African proverb that says, “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” Likewise, the issue of early and unintended pregnancy is not one individual’s responsibility; everyone has a role to play in preventing adolescent pregnancy. Young women need increased access to equal opportunities, education in sexual and reproductive health, youth-friendly services, social support, education, employment, and empowering life skills, so that unplanned childbearing does not hinder the achievement of their dreams at a young age.

To learn more about adolescent pregnancy visit the Interagency Youth Working Group’s “Adolescent Pregnancy” topic page.

Are you inspired to act on behalf of women and girls who deserve the opportunity to determine their own futures; who desperately need access to family planning education and contraceptives? Keep an eye out for ongoing information about, and ways to pledge support for, the upcoming Family Planning Summit on July 11, 2012. The Summit is being hosted by the Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) with the aim of addressing the unmet need for contraceptives for the 120 million women in the poorest countries who, over the next eight years, will want and need but don’t have access to them. It’s about investing in women and girls and putting family planning front and center on the global agenda. Join the conversation with @gatesfoundation and check Impatient Optimists regularly for details.