Family Planning, Youth

Youth and Unintended Pregnancy: Why We Need to Stop Playing the Blame Game

Growing up is quite an adventure. First you are a child who can only see the world in black and white. Then, you hit puberty and suddenly everything changes.

My transition from childhood to adolescence seemed to happen overnight. Suddenly, I was confused, and there were no answers. Issues that had never been raised before came knocking at my door. I found myself having thoughts on subjects considered too shameful for conversation.

There were new trials, and new rules: My cousins told me countless myths about my body. If my brother touched a towel, I could not use it. I would feel hesitant using the shower after him. Going to the local shop to order sanitary pads was a monthly walk of shame. I could never face the seller, even though we normally made fun and light conversation. From not knowing why I experienced sudden dizziness, to explaining to a male doctor that I had menstrual cramps, puberty was a series of sudden shocks.

I grew from fearing strangers to fearing my own body.

Most shocking was the number of risks I was now exposed to. As a child, I was told only not to talk to strangers and not to leave the house without my parents’ knowledge. But once I got my period, I was given the order to stop hanging out with my guy-friends. When my aunts called me to a private room, away from the ears of my siblings, I was expecting a long, meaningful conversation. But it ended in a three-sentence monologue: You are old now. No more playing around. No more hanging with boys.

I grew from fearing strangers to fearing my own body.

For a teenage girl in Africa, getting pregnant is the highway to oblivion. It means no more school, zero chances of meaningful employment, and utter loneliness and stigmatization from the community. I did not need to be told that getting pregnant would be the end of me. All around me, I heard it. My subconscious felt it, unspoken but still there, in all of the conversations about growing up.

I had also seen what happened to my friends who became pregnant as teenagers. I was afraid to even spend time with them, as most people seemed to believe pregnancies are infectious (not in the literal sense, but in the sense that unintended pregnancies are a failure of self-control and a result of bad behavior). Bad girls they were.

YouthandbabyCrop
For young women in Africa, teen pregnancy can mean dropping out of school, loss of employment opportunities, and stigmatization from the community.

However, after experiencing the adventure that is growing up in this fast-changing world, I now know better. And I am certain of a couple of things regarding unintended pregnancies:

1. Unintended pregnancies are not just a result of bad behavior or a failure of the teen mother. The responsibility is more widespread than that. It is the failure of mothers and aunts to pass on to us precious information on our reproductive health. It is the failure of education facilities and governments to teach comprehensive sexual education that exposes the youth to quality information. It is the failure of a culture and a society that will ignore the rising number of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and new sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and still pretend that young people are being abstinent. I am grateful for my mother, who made sure I had the right information and provided me with books so that I could read what we couldn’t talk about.

2. A lack of quality, accurate information allows the spread of myths. Hopefully the days are behind us when young adolescents had sex to get rid of acne. However, access to quality information regarding sexual and reproductive health, and access to contraceptives, is still the privilege of only a few in many developing countries.

3. The modern young person desires alternatives and choices. With the number of times we hear about how bad an early pregnancy is, coupled with how many things we are told about sex, it is no wonder the choice is mixed for many. Most teenage mothers in Africa do not desire to be pregnant, yet they do not abstain from sex. For many, once they give up abstinence, there is no true information to help them make a conscious and informed decision to avoid an unintended pregnancy. Contrary to popular belief, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and more knowledge regarding sexual and reproductive health actually helps young people delay the time of first intercourse.

At the International Conference on Family Planning last November, I joined my voice with other young people from all across the globe to advocate for “Full Access, Full Choice.” Access to quality information and quality services in a youth-friendly environment should be a right—not a privilege.

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