Faith Jacha, the founder of the Single Mothers Association (SMA), says both are true. “The phenomenon is universal and pervasive. It is not confined to one class, age-group or region. The causes as well as the consequences of being a single mother vary,” she said in a recent interview.
Jacha set up SMA in 2010 and opened a Facebook page to help single mothers. She herself was forced by her parents into marriage with a man 30 years her senior whom she had never seen before. After four years and two children, she decided it was not the life she wanted to live.
“Parents do not accept daughters back in their home once they are married. My mother told me to go back to my husband and persevere as she had done with my father. But I wanted to take control of my life, even if that meant raising the children myself in hardship,” Jacha told The Zimbabwean, adding that this had been the motivation behind her work.
“I was pregnant when I became single and went to the Family Planning Association for advice and help. Soon, I joined them and was then selected for a course to become a trainer of community workers myself,” she said.
After being trained in community development, she set up SMA, which now has many clients who are given help according to their need.
Had to leave school
Ruth Jera, a 20-year-old domestic worker, is one of them. She had to leave school after getting pregnant and then moved to Harare from her village in Murehwa in search of work as her father refused to support her or the baby.
“I had completed my ‘O’ levels but after the child was born neither my family nor my school wanted me back. If I had wanted to study further at all, I had to go to a different school,” Ruth recalls. But the decision was not hers anymore, she says, as the child needed her.
“I did not want the child after my boyfriend left me because he himself was still in school. But as a mother I could not abandon him,” she said.
There is no central collection of statistics on single mothers. But there are data that points to their growing numbers. The Harare-based Centre for the Study of Adolescence estimates that up to 13,000 girls drop out of school every year as a result of pregnancy.
Treated as outcasts
These young girls are often treated as outcasts by their families. Many migrate to cities where they face unemployment, health risks and malnutrition. As a network of women’s rights NGOs gains strength, the presence of single mothers as a significant group in society is being recognised, says Jacha.
“We have worked with mothers as young as 13 and widows as old as 40. Their needs are different from each other and it takes a network of women’s groups to address them. “Our financial and human resources are too small and the magnitude of the problem is too big. The best we can do is to pool our strengths through networking,” she said.
Health and education of young mothers are two key areas of such networking. As the main provider of health services, government hospitals work in partnership with women’s organisations.
Dr Rupert Marunga of Harare Hospital, which receives cases of teenage pregnancy referred by organisations like SMA, said early motherhood entailed more than just medical complications.
“Unmarried girls who become pregnant face three alternatives. She may marry the father; if she is in school, she most likely will drop out. The marriage as well as the pregnancy may be unwanted and soon result in divorce or abandonment, often experiencing societal disapproval and economic hardship. Or she may have an abortion, typically illegal and unsafe,” he said.
If girls go through with the pregnancy, the risk of complications or of dying in childbirth is much greater than if she had delayed childbearing until physical maturity. Those who survive face livelihood issues.
Jacha stressed the importance of schooling and vocational training for young, outcast mothers.
There are numerous projects, such as her programme of informal schools, which provide opportunities for alternative education to girls who have been expelled.
“Schools in the formal system prefer not to readmit those who get pregnant while studying even though there is no law barring them,” she said. “Above all, young mothers become adults directly after childhood without the intervening phase of adolescence.”
A unique aspect of her organisation is that in addition to their work with young mothers they focus on what Jacha calls ‘baby fathers’. She lamented the lopsided focus on the part of government and international donors on girl-specific initiatives.
“Male sexual education, awareness and employment skills are equally important. If we are to address the problem of teenage pregnancy and single mothers, boys will have to be given as much attention as the girls.
Sadly, all the national and international funding is for girl-focused programmes. Boys are being left out and it is showing negative results already,” said Jacha, who thinks male youths are under more pressure and receive little attention for their problems.
“The problem of single mothers, street children, prostitution and HIV/AIDS cannot be addressed in isolation from the male component of society. We’ll have to engage vulnerable people on both sides of the gender divide,” she said.
Source- The Zimbabwean