Stigmatised and disowned young mothers find solace

Wednesday May 13 2020
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Sharon Muhonja. She created a culture of young mothers and women supporting each other. PHOTO | COURTESY

By SYOVATA NDAMBUKI

When Sharon Muhonja, 26 got into her first relationship at the age of 16, she thought it was going to be all roses and petals.

She thought she was in love, but the love story turned out to be a short story.

She then vowed to never fall in love again after breaking up with her first boyfriend.

She laughs when she recalls that vow because two years later, she was back at it. She met another man and started dating.

This time round, the plot thickened. A few chapters into the story and the least expected happened.

During the course of the relationship, Muhonja travelled to the Kenyan Coast for music festivals as she was quite active in music club.

When she came back, she and missed her periods for two months, she assumed that she had been affected by the change of climate change following her trip.

GUIDANCE

A few days later, she went for a date with her boyfriend. “Upon arriving at the hotel, I almost fainted. I couldn’t handle the aromas of different foods. They weren’t pleasant,” she narrates.

She felt nauseated by the smell of food, especially onions and it’s at that point that she diagnosed herself with malaria.

At the back of her mind, however, pregnancy was also a possibility. She shared her fears with her friend, who then cried with her before agreeing to save up for a pregnancy test kit.

They eventually bought the kit and planned to test the following Monday. As fear would have it, they postponed for four days.

Eventually, when Muhonja took the test, it turned positive. She informed her mother, who was surprisingly calm and collected when receiving the news.

She encouraged and assured her that everything would be fine. When she broke the news to her father, he was in disbelief at first.

“He kept hoping that it was a nightmare, but eventually he accepted and even gave me advice on the dos and don’ts of pregnancy,” she remembers.

SEX EDUCATION

Then the worst happened. When she informed her boyfriend about it, he said he wasn’t ready to be a father and suggested that she aborts.

“He suggested that I abort and when I refused, he hurled insults at me and my mother, saying I was to blame for the pregnancy.” He moved on.

Muhonja was born in Githurai and raised in Kawangware. Her father was a pastor and her mother a casual labourer.

Growing up, her mother always talked to her and her brother about relationships. She encouraged them to ask questions and even bring people they deemed worthy of dating home for “a cup of tea”.

Muhonja was also well-equipped on matters sex education by her peers, who had been trained as counsellors.

Besides, she was among the brightest students in her community and it was obvious she was destined for greatness.

Pregnancy at the age of 18 was thus least expected by those around her.

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For Sharon Amondi, 24, she describes her journey to motherhood as originating from a “silly idea”.

In 2014 and at 19, she joined campus to study Actuarial Science. In January the same year, she met a colleague and their friendship blossomed into a relationship.

They both wanted their love to last, and last it did. “He was to travel abroad for studies and so we had a casual talk about having a baby so he could come back home to a family after completing his studies,” she recalls.

While she wasn’t necessarily trying to execute that idea, she missed her periods along the way.

Like every other girl, she assumed that her periods were irregular. A few days later, she decided to visit a local hospital for a pregnancy test, which turned out positive.

When she broke the news to her partner, he surprisingly took it positively. “He even had a name for the child,” says Amondi.

Unlike Muhonja, Amondi hadn’t received much education about sex and reproductive health.

Growing up, she was never the type to get into trouble and, therefore, everyone assumed she had everything under control.

Even more surprising, no one noticed she was pregnant until seven and a half months later.

Her mother had been unwell and bedridden most of the time and Amondi took up the role of a caregiver from time to time.

DROPOUTS

Her father travelled most of the time as his job demanded so. Besides, her pregnancy mirrored her calm demeanour by lacking significant symptoms, hence making it difficult to detect.

According to a United Nations Population Fund report, about a quarter of women in Kenya give birth by the age of 18.

And by the age of 20, half of the population of women has given birth. The rates of teenage pregnancies are especially high at the age of 19, where 40 per cent are either pregnant or have given birth.

Early pregnancies pose several challenges not only to women but also to the development of a country.

For instance, young girls face the danger of dropping out of school once they get pregnant due to financial constraints.

Other times, stringent policies by both secondary schools and universities make it difficult for girls to continue with their education once they get pregnant.

Secondary schools, for instance, have had a culture of expelling pregnant girls while public universities deny students who deliver affordable accommodation within the institutions.

When such girls are rejected by schools, the society and sometimes family members, it’s easier to find themselves in abusive relationships.

Both Amondi and Muhonja had to deal with these realities when they delivered their babies, as they were both in their first year of campus.

“I had to leave my one-month-old baby with my parents in order to continue with my studies,” says Muhonja.

DEPRESSION

This was the most affordable option compared to renting a private hostel in campus and hiring a nanny to look after her baby while she attended classes.

She was determined to complete her studies regardless of the circumstances. Interestingly, she had been on sponsorship throughout her primary and secondary education as she was a bright student.

However, when she got pregnant, her sponsors withdrew support. Luckily, her parents continued to offer the support she needed.

As for Amondi, continuing with her studies meant making sacrifices. “I went back to school three weeks after delivery,” she says.

She didn’t have the luxury of taking a three months’ break to bond and take care of her little boy as most women do.

Life had to go on at a fast pace if she was to keep up with her classmates. As expected, motherhood at such a young age was going to take a toll on the two.

Muhonja was hit hard by post-partum depression, and the naysayers couldn’t let her breathe.

Being a pastor’s daughter, the society judged her harshly. She notes that she became the laughing stock as everyone either talked in hushed tones behind her back or openly mocked her for giving birth at a young age.

SUPPORT GROUP

At one point, she collapsed in class for pushing herself too hard. She was eager to prove to herself, her family and other women that it was possible to make it despite the circumstances.

She, therefore, took up extra singing jobs with bands in Eldoret to make money while juggling motherhood with classes.

Amondi also dealt with the same kind of stigma. “People had invented eight fathers for my child since they didn’t know him. It was hurtful to hear all the gossip and shaming especially from people I worshipped with at the church,” she recalls.

While parents and friends offered the much needed support to these two, there are certain things they had to deal with alone.

“Even though my partner was supportive, there are things he couldn’t understand like staying up at night or dealing with diaper rash,” confesses Amondi.

Sometimes her classmates would make fun of her for coming to class late, not understanding that she had to breastfeed or pass by the clinic.

Muhonja says as a young mother, she yearned to talk about her problems freely without feeling judged or misunderstood.

It is for this reason that she formed the Young Mothers Association in 2014 while still at Moi University.

The association provided a platform for young mothers to share their problems, and receive support from its partners. She started with 142 members, both mothers and non-mothers.

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Moreen Nkatha, 28, was a beneficiary of the association during her time in Moi University.

Nkatha got pregnant at 22 while in her second year. She had a supportive partner and luckily, she was a beneficiary of Helb loan.

Supporting her child financially was therefore not a major concern. But she had other fears and unspoken concerns before joining the association.

For instance, she was raised by her grandparents, who had high hopes in her, especially after joining university.

Her mother had given birth to her at a very young age and that’s why she had to stay under the care of her grandparents.

Her father was an absentee, who openly declared his unpreparedness to be a dad. She had never met him.

When she delivered, she was afraid that history was repeating itself and her fate would be similar to her mother’s.

She wanted to talk about these fears with the right people. She also needed to be around people who understood the invisible challenges such as missing classes due to fatigue.

“During the earlier stages of the pregnancy, attending classes was tough because of morning sickness,” she narrates.

Therefore, the association offered an avenue to share these experiences.

EMPOWERMENT

Nkatha emphasises the need for young mothers to be around people travelling a similar journey as she learnt from experience.

Besides being a member of the association, she also formed strong friendship with another young mother and they rented a house together.

It was like one big family and she was able to deal with the loneliness that was slowly creeping in given that she couldn’t afford to spend time with friends, as she was always rushing to check up on her baby after classes.

The association supplemented this newfound friendship in several others ways. As Muhonja explains, the association ensured young mothers’ emotional needs were met.

She would organise fun days for mothers to bond with their children. Other times she would invite partners and relevant bodies to give guidance to those dealing with post-partum depression.

The association is not just a support group but a platform for empowerment.

“We have merry-go rounds and a saving plan that enables young mothers to buy food and household items. We also offer loans to members, who are then able to start businesses and support themselves and their children.”

“Besides, we’ve been able to lobby for the rights of young mothers at the university, making it possible for them to access healthcare and accommodation,” says Muhonja.

The association also invites speakers to tackle issues such as abstinence, pregnancy and family planning.

BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES

The icing on the cake is members offering financial support to underprivileged mothers to cushion them from dropping out of school.

While Muhonja graduated and left the university, she created a culture of young mothers and women supporting each other instead of stigmatising those who deliver at a young age.

To date, she continues to help young and vulnerable mothers.

She admits that as a country and society, we’re still far away from achieving sustainable development for this population.

“It is still alarming that young mothers either end up in abusive relationships or raise their children alone,” she says.

At times she has to shelter those she helps in her house as they have nowhere to go.

She hopes that the government and relevant bodies will provide opportunities for young mothers to receive training in different areas so as to gain a source of income.

Further, she calls on the government to fund young mothers’ small businesses to prevent their children from going hungry.

Despite having come a long way, she admits that motherhood doesn’t get easier, but the challenges do change over time.

PROPER PARENTING

Today, the three young women are concerned about raising good children and doing the best they can to be good mothers.

Amondi, who currently works as an insurance officer, wants to give her son a better childhood and create a strong bond with him.

“For children to open up to adults about their struggles and dilemmas on dating, sex and other issues, we have to open up to them. They should know that we’re not perfect and that we made the same mistakes they might consider making,” she says.

Nkatha, who currently works as an assistant medical records officer, insists that conversations about sex education need to start as early as primary school.

“Besides, children need to trust adults around them if they’re to open up about the issues they’re facing. It all boils down to creating an environment that supports candid conversations,” she says.