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Educate schoolgirl mothers, but not at the expense of their babies

Monday January 21 2019

Teen pregnancies

About 11,977 girls in Busia got pregnant in 2018with 358 of them being 10 to 14 years old. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

DOROTHY KWEYU
By DOROTHY KWEYU
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When you have too many wars to fight, you choose them wisely. The one on adolescent sexuality and (mis) management of its aftermath is such.

I have been involved in the debate on teenage sex and pregnancies for more than three decades and, seeing it’s almost a lost cause, I have virtually given up the fight. I have veered towards the cowardly mtoto akililia wembe, mpe (Literally if the child cries for a razor blade, give it to them).

Then the last national exams came, and it was as if schoolgirls were competing for the medal of writing the tests from the maternity ward! As if that was not enough, the unpredictable chorus followed: Woe unto any head teacher who dares lock them out of school, come 2019, just because they are now mothers.

I have decided to come out of my comfort zone of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, which celebrates the wisdom (or is it folly?) of minding one’s own business. My take is that fighting the teen pregnancy contagion is not a lone-ranger battle; it involves many others.

MALNUTRITION

Actually, it is a war that must be fought — and won — because it’s at the heart of the gender equity and equality debate that I have been party to for decades.

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So the Ministry of Education is breathing fire and brimstone down the necks of principals who dare to lock out such mothers?

This piece is not so much about the danger of mixing exposed teen moms with the other, innocent children. Indeed, there are hardly any innocents since, as parents, we have abandoned child-rearing to nannies, TV sets and smartphones, which have conspired to rob our children of their innocence.

While mixing teen moms with other learners certainly glamorises a status schoolchildren have not earned as schooling is to children what parenting is to mothers and fathers, the campaign for re-entry of school moms grossly glosses over various fundamentals.

Exclusive breastfeeding

First is the refusal by the crafters of the re-entry policy to acknowledge that a human baby is not a calf that learns to graze within weeks of its birth. Newborn policies advocate exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and alongside complementary foods for at least two years.

Our forebears knew this long before the World Health Organisation (WHO) crafted policies and guidelines to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. The policies saw infant formula pushers bundled out of maternity units, which they had turned into shops for their potentially harmful products that denied newborns breastmilk benefits.

Pregnant schoolgirls should take time off to give birth and nurse their babies until it is safe to leave them in alternative hands. Studies have proved that undernutrition causes 45 per cent of child deaths.

WRONG MESSAGE

It is thus absurd for schoolgirl mom re-entry advocates to relegate infants’ right to good nutrition under the guise of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). WHO asserts that breastfeeding improves IQ and school attendance and is linked to higher income in adult life.

It is bad economics to rush teen moms back to school just because keeping them at home punishes them while their peers, some of who made them pregnant, remain in class. Indeed, the benefits of breastfeeding supersede the often-too-narrow SRHR debate.

Over 820,000 children’s lives among under-five-year-olds could be saved yearly if they were optimally breastfed, WHO says. “Improving child development and reducing health costs through breastfeeding results in economic gains for individual families as well as at the national level.”

Caveat: I’m not with Tanzania’s Dr John Magufuli, who has vowed to lock schoolgirl moms out of school as long as he is the president. They should go for vocational training, he says. Technical and vocational education has a vital role in economic development and using it to deter teen pregnancies sends the wrong message.

Girls’ education should not be promoted at their babies’ expense and school re-entry policies should be tempered to take cognisance of this fact.

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