Likoma offers vivid lessons why girls under 18 constitute nearly 30 in 100 pregnant women who die while giving birth. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
all her Emma to hide her name because she is only 16. She is the odd one out. The pregnant teen spends her time in isolation.
During the meeting on Likoma Island recently, the baby bulge was draped in a chitenje that was knotted just above her breasts. Chewing a raw mango with grains of salt, she looked deep in thought.
Some villagers think her self-esteem is devastated by the bulge, but Emma insists: “I need time to reflect on my condition and what is happening.”
“What happened?” I ask.
She looks down, smiles coyly and says nothing.
“Come on, say something,” I insist.
“Inali ngozi,” she murmurs.
The immediate accident that comes to mind is not that she is pregnant before her marriageable age. Marrying Too Young, a study by UNFPA, shows for one in two Malawian girl married before their 18th birthday.
Rather, it is no secret pregnancies emanate from unprotected sex, a major risk factor for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and Aids.
But Emma is not the voice in a radio advert for increased access to youth-friendly sexually reproductive health services who will rush to tell you: “I didn’t know a single sexual encounter is enough.”
She knows the risks of unprotected sex pretty well, but says: “The tragic accident is that I was always found unable to demand effective condom use.” The Form Two girl would have been in school if she had access to contraceptive pills or injectables, she opines.
At the meeting dialling up youth access to birth control, nearly all men were asking: “Where are the men?”
Instantly, almost 200 women in attendance chorused: “They’re gone to the lake!”
That’s where trouble began last year.
“I was in love with a married fisherman,” she says.
“He kept saying, ‘I love you’. He used to spoil me with money and gifts, but the goodies started disappearing after he slept with me,” she explains. She regrets swallowing the line, hook and sinker as the niceties reportedly vanished when she informed him she had missed her periods. He dumped her and denied responsibility, she says.
Her dilemma mirrors the helplessness of girls in intergenerational sexual relationships where masculinity and money are akin to power, is not the only pregnant teenager in the two-island district of Likoma.
Teen mothers are widespread at Chizumulu and Likoma islands.
Group Village head Chamba attributes girls failure to delay marriage and childbearing to high circulation of money due to the island’s vibrant fishing sector.
“If they resist the aroma of kwacha notes in fishermen’s hands, the girls are likely to fall prey to shiploads of vendors who come to order fish,” he says.
When Likoma residents hear the hooting of an approaching ship, they hurry to the harbour where the businessmen, tourists, civil servants and other arrivals hook up with local men and women for transactional sex.
This year alone, 296 households in Chamba Village have registered seven teen pregnancies down from about in the previous years.
The traditional leader credits the reduction to Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), an umbrella of various churches.
AEM is working with religious leaders, village heads, women groups and youth clubs to improve the island’s sexual reproductive health record on the island cut off from numerous vital services offered by both government and non-governmental organisation.
The interventions include youth access to pep talks and contraceptive to ensure every pregnancy is wanted, not accidental.
In the country, providing the youth with contraceptives catalyses fierce resistance among culture warriors since many know the service as family planning, not birth control.
“Why family planning? Are the girls married? Do they have children to space? This is encouraging girls to have sex,” retorts Mercy Mwangobola.
Equally militant are the locals in opposition to churches preaching this gospel of promiscuity when the bible requires them to urge the children against sex before and outside marriage.
The harsh finality mirrors could be typical of the Malawian society.
Except youthful mothers in Likoma squarely blame it for scaring away people from obtaining contraceptives at St Peters Hospital and Chizumulu Health Centre.
“The majority of women with babies on their back fell pregnant before 18, but they will call you all bad names if they saw you going to the hospital to get condoms or any form of birth control,” she said.
The main drawback is that the islands are so small that most of the elders at the health centre comprise neighbours, relatives or “those who know you in some way”, she explained.
This deters boys and girls from accessing modern methods of birth control.
However, Hilda Mhango, the speaker of the district’s youth parliament, salutes EAM for the clubs where they discuss their sexual rights as peers.
“The rights circles offer boys and girls safe space to talk about their sexuality, realities of adolescence, educational issues, access to jobs and other relevant topics without fear of eavesdroppers.
According to EAM district coordinator Dexter Masese, churches’ involvement is critical not only because the youth are largely excluded from SRH interventions despite being sexually active.
District commissioner Charles Mwawembe pays tribute to the project for lengthening girls stay in school, which is delaying marriages and childbearing.
“We need to control population growth which is burdening every sector of our society,” he says.
Concurring, Nkumpha terms the SRH campaign is an “eye-opener for the secluded population” and “a paddle for development”.