LUSAKA, May 19, 2015 – Catherine’s Story: “I started having sex when I was 14 years old. I was having it out of ignorance, just enjoying myself oblivious of the consequences. I got pregnant at 18. I was rejected by my father, and health care providers were not any kinder. I gave birth through caesarean section. My mother who had embraced me was also pregnant and she unfortunately died three months after she gave birth. So I was forced to care for and breast feed both my baby and my baby brother. I endured economic hardship while struggling to provide for the babies and my grandmother with little support from society. Looking back, I wished I had access to sexual reproductive health information to guide my actions as a teenager, and support in caring for my baby so I could return to school.” As told by Catherine to the Policy Workshop on Adolescent Girls in Zambia, May 2015.
Catherine’s experience reflects the themes that are part of a new World Bank Programmatic Study on Adolescent Girls in Zambia, to be released later this year. The government commissioned the study due to concerns about high rates of adolescent pregnancy and early marriage, with about 16,000 teenage girls falling pregnant every year. The government plans to use the study findings to define its next steps to address the problems.
During a recent policy workshop in Lusaka, the study findings and recommendations were reviewed by a cross-section of stakeholders. The study focuses on four pillars, with three pillars focused on adolescent girls and the prevention of early marriage/teenage pregnancy by keeping girls in school, equipping girls who are out of school with relevant technical and life skills, and supporting teenage mothers to adopt a healthy lifestyle and form a family. The fourth pillar is on mitigating the consequences of teenage pregnancies for the next generation by specifically addressing the early childhood development needs of children born to teenage mothers.
Several next steps were identified during the workshop, among them, the need for the country to reinforce coordination and be bolder in exploring partnerships between the government and non-state organizations to reach as many girls as possible with programs to help prevent early marriage and pregnancy. Nkunda Luo, Minister of Gender and Child Development, agreed.
“The problem of early marriage and teenage pregnancy is multisectoral in nature and therefore requires Government to act quickly to improve coordination among government ministries and other relevant stakeholders to ensure the girl child is supported,” said Luo, who attended the workshop.
Adolescent girls who attended the workshop called for the provision of sexual reproductive health information, arguing that even if adolescents are taught to abstain, 80% of them will go ahead and try it.
“Government needs to listen to the evidence that is available and provide sexual reproductive information and education to help prevent pregnancies,” said the Minister of Youth, Hon. Vincent Mwale, who also attended the workshop.
In its recommendations, the study highlighted the importance of interventions to keep girls in school which includes having schools that are girl-friendly by way of having facilities and an overall school culture that enhance their safety and promote learning. On the family side, a mix of well-targeted incentives such as scholarships and cash transfers was recommended as a way to reduce the direct and indirect costs of schooling for the most vulnerable girls starting in the upper grades of primary school.
In the event that girls drop out of school the study recommends providing various technical and life skills with the support of the community, and supporting teenage mothers with information on adopting a healthy lifestyle. According to the study, such initiatives would require a multi-pronged approach that includes provision of comprehensive family planning interventions, building capacity of service providers, and engaging the community on various issues. In addition, the study says, children born to teenage mothers are particularly vulnerable and need various programs to improve their health, promote their development, and prepare them for success in school and in life.
Ultimately, all this effort to promote the development of adolescent girls and to reduce early marriage and teenage pregnancy is important in the fight against poverty, said Kundhavi Kadiresan, World Bank Country Director for Zambia.
“Global evidence shows that girls who delay marriage and childbearing reach a higher level of education which helps them to become more productive members of society, and contribute better to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty through investing in their own children,” she said.
It is critical for Zambia to act now considering that there are already 4 million adolescents in Zambia and that this number is expected to reach 10 million by 2050 based on current demographic trends, said Sophie Naudeau, the World Bank’s Task Team Leader for the study.