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Pregnant at 13, Tanzania's child mothers

Pregnant at 13, Tanzania's child mothers

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation

In Tanzania many girls are forced to grow up too fast. The girls interviewed for this film had babies when they were still children themselves.

Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world. More than 44 percent of girls have begun childbearing by the time they are 19.

This is serious for many reasons. Not least, pregnancy cuts short a girl’s education. In Tanzania, girls are expelled from school when they get pregnant.

And they are usually not allowed back after the birth even if they can afford the childcare for their new babies.

More than 55,000 girls have been expelled from school in the last decade for being pregnant, according to a study published last month.

One striking thing about the girls interviewed for this film is that they were keen to do well at school. They wanted to be lawyers, nurses and teachers. They wanted to escape the deprivation they were born into.

But in many cases, this very poverty contributed to their early pregnancies. Some of the girls were trading sex with older men in exchange for school fees, books and uniform.

One girl, whom we have called Wankulu to protect her identity, described how she became pregnant after she was raped by a teacher she was hoping would help her with after-school tuition. Her story, sadly, is not unusual.


Other girls become pregnant after being pulled out of school to marry.

The legal age for girls to marry is 15 in Tanzania, but they can marry younger if their parents agree. Some 37 percent of young women in Tanzania were married by the age of 18, according to a report by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

One of the saddest stories in our film comes from a girl called Ghati.

When her father died, she was forced to leave school and move in with her uncle in another village. He promptly married her off at 12 to a man of 40 in exchange for some cows.

Her new husband repeatedly beat her, raped her and even locked her in the house so she could not escape.

Like many young girls, Ghati had difficulty giving birth.

She and her baby survived, but worldwide, 70,000 teenagers die every year from pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications.

If a girl gives birth before her pelvis is fully formed, the baby can get stuck, raising the risk of the mother dying or suffering serious injury.

Many girls in the northern Mara region, where this film was shot, tell a similar story. They are poor. A boy offers them small gifts like soap, a bottle of shampoo, skin lotion. He then forces himself on her. The girls do not always call it rape, but the sex is not consensual. When the girl announces she is pregnant, the boy vanishes.

Teenage pregnancy outside marriage is heavily stigmatised in Tanzania. In some cases, the parents throw the girls out of the family home.

With a baby to feed and no job, these child mothers are easy prey.

Several girls said that when their baby’s father disappeared they had become involved with another man after he offered to support them. But when the girl fell pregnant again, so, too, was she abandoned again, leaving her in an even more precarious position.

Child marriage and early pregnancy cuts short girls’ education and limits their future earning ability, trapping them in poverty and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and domestic abuse.

“I want to tell girls they should study very hard because without education you can’t do anything. Education is key,” Wankulu said.

She now works for a group called Sisters for Sisters - run by Tanzanian charity Children's Dignity Forum - which helps empower child mothers.

Wankulu teaches girls to sew and grow vegetables as a means of boosting both their income and their independence.

It may be too late for most of the girls in this film to return to school, but if they are helped to stand on their own feet, they may at least be able to help their own daughters build a better future.

This multimedia story uses material originally shot by photographer Chiara Ceolin for a child marriage project run by the British charity FORWARD in partnership with the Children’s Dignity Forum.