Each year, millions of girls around the world give birth before their 18th birthday.
Apart from the health risk of giving birth while young, such girls sometimes also end up dropping out of school, which affects their future employment prospects.
But this was not the case for 21-year-old Tusaiwe Munkhondya who after falling pregnant at the age of 16 and giving birth to her son who is now four-years-old at 17, still went back to school to make a better future for the two of them.
The Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2016 conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO), indicates that the rate of teenage pregnancies continues to rise in the country and that between 2010 and 2016, it rose from 25-29 percent.
Born on March 9, 1999, the Mzuzu-based Tusaiwe was among those teenage girls who had children in that decade.
But something good came out of the hardships that she faced as a teen mother, as having appreciated such challenges motivated her to start up an initiative in support of other teenage mothers.
“I am a single mother and it has not been easy. I was always in and out of hospital because mine is a special needs child with autism. This always stressed me. Based on what I went through, I decided to come up with this initiative. I just want to see others being helped. A lot of young mothers are looked down upon and I have been one of them,” she says.
The initiative — Empowering Young Mothers — equips women with vocational skills such as cosmetology, tailoring and designing, catering, adult literacy as well as music and arts, to help them have something that can give them a constant income.
“Empowering Young Mothers is for the women who have children and who are pregnant. It is there to build successful women who can develop the nation. The women are assisted through vocational trainings such as tailoring and designing, cosmetology and catering. We also teach them how to read and write, as well as life skills and music and arts courses,” she explains.
Prisca Chirwa from Mkumpha Village in Likoma, who is currently into small scale businesses such as buying and selling fish, is among the young mothers who have been impacted by the initiative.
She says: “We have learnt more about entrepreneurship, English grammar, tailoring, cosmetology, music, arts and many things. We are no longer the same. Here on the island, many people are doing businesses, but they do not really know how to run it. But now so many women are lucky because of this project.”
The benefits are many, she says, adding that with cosmetology, they now know how to take care of their bodies better than before.
Apart from that, she also says the project has taught them to be stronger as single mothers, considering that with absent fathers, they get stressed out a lot.
Currently, the project is being implemented in two places — Mzuzu and Likoma, but while the Mzuzu programme is currently on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Likoma one is still going.
“We want this programme to reach all over Malawi and raise female leaders. The challenge we have is that we don’t have funding like the Likoma Project, which is funded by Green Safaris,” says Tusaiwe.
She also does a crochet business and the little she gets from it is used to fund the Empowering Young Mothers initiative. Additionally, well-wishers donate now and then to support the projects.
The young mother who likes reading, writing children’s books, and listening to music, also has a nursery school called Jahaziel Academy Nursery School which is also helping the community by providing good education for a small amount of fees.
“We also have less privileged children who are mostly assisted by my friends with school fees. The challenge I face is that people don’t pay fees sometimes and the teachers go on strike,” she says.
Tusaiwe also runs another programme known as You are not alone — getting together old or new children’s clothes from well-wishers and distributing in rural areas.
Born as the only child, her parents were never married. She was abandoned by her father and later on, her mother did too, leaving her with her grandparents when she was just nine months old.
“She still doesn’t like me. Life has not been easy. I have faced physical and emotional abuse from different people,” she explains.
It was probably in her quest to feel loved and accepted that she ended up getting pregnant at the age of 16 soon after her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) at Madisi Secondary School.
But this did not push Tusaiwe back. She carried on with her education after having her son; then she went to a private college in Mzuzu where she pursued a certificate in hospitality.
“It wasn’t easy, but I kept on pushing,” she recalls.
In 2018 , she introduced the group for teen mothers, but their meetings eventually stopped because her uncle did not want them meeting. He would chase them out whenever they had a meeting at home.
She had no other choice, but to give up on it. Sometime later in 2019, she decided to register the non-governmental organisation which started operating again in January 2020 with her friends.