Thursday, 29 June 2017

Fighting Teen Mom Stigma - it should be personal or else you are complicit


Magufuli’s stupid statements hit a raw nerve when he chest thumped his authority in a public rally on 22 June in Bagamoyo saying,

“In my administration, as long as I am president … no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. We cannot allow this immoral behaviour to permeate our primary and secondary schools … never,” he said.

That was a slap on my face and my visceral reaction of utter disgust was swift. You see the ease within which many of us fall into shaming teenage mothers is appalling as it is widespread. For me, his words and those who cheered him is very much a personal affront. I was after all a teenage mother and that indifferent declaration took me to a very ominous period of my life.

My first inkling of teen mother shaming and the impact it had on girls was in my first year and term of high school.  I found myself in a boarding school that was not easy; finding kindness was a rare thing. Thankfully my parents were perceptive enough to see this too and they worked hard to get a transfer to another school the next term. In the remaining days of the term I kept my head down and tried with great difficulty to stay out of trouble with school bullies, teachers who were bullies and a deputy and head teacher who I frankly thought were sociopaths. My most vivid memories that I have not managed to compartmentalise in the corners of my brain were the deputy head’s three under ten kids who we often came across kneeling on gravel outside their home all afternoon into the evening when we went for prep. As the hours passed by, you would see them weakening and crouching for relief, but the hawk eyed mother would have none of it. They were not allowed to talked to us and we were not allowed to talk, help them or give them water or avocadoes or anything. It was gut wrenching.

The other memory I have was of my first bunk bed mate. She was from Nakuru, my hometown and she was a jolly third former. She was Muslim and I remember her waking up real early to do her prayers. She was immensely nice to me and always had a ready smile.  I looked up to her and was grateful to have a kind bunkmate and protection from monolization (high school bullying) very common in my day. Also, she was the only girl I knew who walked around with slippers and not our white socks and black shoes. Her feet were superbly swollen, she explained to me she was sick and had a note from the nurse not to wear shoes. I would often see her ambling back and forth in her slippers thinking how cool it was not to have to wear uniform but quickly thought how terrible it would be for me to have swollen feet. In the course of the term, as with most Kenyan schools the school had the ‘bright idea’ of unceremoniously sending kids home for school fees balances. That is the last time I saw my bunkmate, she promised to drop by my mother’s shop and drop her a note and bring me goodies from her on the way back. Days become weeks, and other students resumed classes on sorting out fees or making arrangements on payment plans with the school administration. But my bunkie did not come back. It was the tail end of that term that the school learnt that she died. I was numbed in shock. It turns out that she was pregnant and on returning home was kicked out by her family, with nowhere to turn she went to the man responsible who rejected her. Leaving her with no back and forth, she sadly took her own life. I remember the teachers’ sardonically clicking their tongues pointing at us to ‘see what happens to bad girls.’ It was so off putting to hear them speak recklessly about a girl they knew nothing about. Well neither did I to be honest, but what I knew deep down inside is she was not a bad girl, she was kind and warm. It occurred to me how I slept on the upper bunk for weeks and had no idea the inner angst she must have been going through.  I was deeply saddened by the fact that she had nobody to share this problem with, and that her nearest and dearest rejected her in such a callous way that the only way she saw an out was to end her life. Little did I know I would find myself in a similar set of circumstance a few short years to come.

At 17 I remember the shock and tears that clouded my lab tests when it read positive as pregnant. In hindsight I believe the shock was not the test and what it meant, but the way in which my life would change in the gaze of my family, the community and friends. I also remember that even as a friendly extrovert, I had literally nobody in my home, my hometown, network I could talk to about the results. Not because I did not have people around me, I just did not have the kind of people who would listen and try to help me make sense of my life.  I made a long distant call to a friend (who my parents did not approve of) and confided in him about my predicament. He was obviously shocked but he did not falter when he said I needed to see a doctor but that I needed to reach out to my family. It took me several months to do that but in the meantime he was a great lifeline offering non-judgement friendship to sit through my stress and tears.

But why do I feel that it is a high time we need to stop shaming girls about pregnancies? Well I recalled all the stereotypes I heard over the course of my pregnancy:

·      The man responsible, who also casually and amusedly and in a drunken state told me that he would often remove protection without my knowledge asked me “whose baby it is” when I finally had the courage to tell him. I had not been with anyone else and lacked a response.

·      Most of my friends and their families totally shunned me. One or two stuck around and visited. Someone suggested being pregnant was infectious.

·      A cousin once said to me that they were collectively warned to avoid my ‘bad influence’ and not associate with me and I was to serve as an example of how not to fall into immorality.

·      I was not allowed to walk freely in public when I was showing.

·      I was turned away from public and faith-based clinics for help because I was 17 and penniless. I had to cash my savings account without my parents knowing to put together 300/- to pay for a consultation with a gynaecologist, it was only then that I managed to see a professional. The man responsible could easily spend this a night with friends over a chilled out evening. He paid for nothing and took no responsibility.

·    When I hesitated to family members and nurses at the maternity ward to talk about the person responsible, they asked, “are you even sure know who is responsible.”

·      At the maternity ward, I was assigned the bed that shared a wall with the delivery room. I spent a night waiting for my pains, all the deliveries that happened that night were plagued with nurses shouting and abusing the would be mothers, ‘Eh shut up, why are you crying now, were you crying when you opened your legs nine months ago?”

·      I tried to join a church and when the usher who was to vet me found out I was a single mother he handed me a brochure for single mothers. Apparently before I joined the church I needed to go over the literature that said as much as I was a child of god I needed to confess the sins of being an unwed mother. There was a 5-point prayer where I was declare myself a wretched sinner who needed forgiveness before I could be welcomed in the fold. I quietly asked the usher if they had a brochure of unwed fathers and he said no, only mothers. He missed my sarcasm. I left the brochure with the ‘magnanimous’ gestures of the church and their ‘offerings of patronage and membership’ and traipsed back home.

·      In their way of coping with the crisis, I would often be asked by my parents ‘how I could do this to them and humiliate them.’

I had the burden of being and feeling responsible for everybody else’s shame of what my teenage pregnancy meant. It was a heavy one. Nobody really asked me what I felt were crucial questions, about my consent, possible abuse about what happened, how we got here.  Decisions and choices were not mine to make not only because I had no means, but mostly because, I largely did not matter. My thoughts, my worries, my desires. And you know what this is still the case in 2017!

****On 31st August 1996 I woke up at around 2am to end my life, I was about three months pregnant. With no imminent solutions in mind and the possibility of isolation, death seemed a better way at the time. I calmly got out of my room and poured some milk into a plastic cup and got the rat killer my dad used to stash. As I was stirring the concoction, my big brother Jim stirred and got up. It was not unusual for any one of us to get up at night for a snack or water, but for some reason he felt the need to check on me. He found me at the kitchen place seconds away from drinking the poison and asked me what I was doing. I was too startled to think of anything and immediately started crying. He ran up to me and held me until my sobs dissipated. He looked over the cup and the poison and just knew. And for the first time I got compassion. I like to think he saved me, because he did. Anything I faced after that I learnt that that there is some good people in this world. *****

Fast forward, listening to the shaming and humiliating rhetoric the likes of Magufuli relentlessly spew out I am angry. I am angry because he is a representation of the stigma solely placed upon single teen mothers. Not a thought on the circumstances that led to this, the effect it has had on her and the ways she is left to navigate such a hostile environment where health practitioners, family, friends, communities and even the State enforce social norms designed to isolate, criminalise and marginalize her.

And in some bad band-aid attempt Tanzania reinforces that ‘anyone found guilty on impregnating students may face a jail sentence of 30 years.’  I wonder how many men have faced these consequences in relation to the girls’ immediate change in life. Statutory rape is and has been illegal in many countries over the years but this has meant nothing in practice and in terms of men preying at under age girls. How many men in positions of power like teachers, religious leaders face consequences other than a slap on the wrist or a transfer at worst. And what about if the one responsible is the same age as the girl, what then? Is a 30-year jail term the solution here?  What does a 30-year jail term mean? That it is left for the mother to be solely responsible for the pregnancy and bringing up of the child? And if she is shunned by family and community and cannot get back to a public school, and the boy responsible is apparently serving a long jail term are contributing to a nation that is widening the gaps of disparity in the name of self-righteous assumptions of moral police who are completely ill informed?

What do reckless stereotypes, policies and laws and social norms say about a society that thrives on humiliation and shame? And a shame that is so entrenched a single mother will face it for her whole lifetime. Teen mothers are constantly made to feel inadequate and irresponsible for all kinds of social ills. The labelling of teen moms has a heavy burden to bear. Some of these stereotypes include:

-Teen mothers are easy and promiscuous getting pregnant by some random guy

-Teen mothers are selfish and irresponsible

-Teen mothers are incompetent parents

-Teen mothers need to get their shit together

-Teen mothers ‘promote immorality.’

-Teen mothers cannot/should not expect to be successful, or ambitious or want to aspire for something because of the ‘choices they made.’
-Teen mother stigma children are equally roped in to blaming their mothers.

-Teen mothers are considered delinquents


The effect of teen mom discrimination is far reaching and is very much a power relational issue where society looks down on them by disapproval, rejection and social isolation. Has it ever occurred to you what effect these experiences that follow them their whole lives has on them and their families?

One of the biggest calamities of society is being blind to the perspectives of its own people. Often I get asked, “So you chose to be a mother.” And usually wonder how to respond; only because we oversimplify what teens who find themselves with unplanned pregnancies have to go through to ‘make choices” and never question whether those choices were informed, compelled, supported and made in a conducive environment. Honestly many times they are not.

**I am saddened by the difficult choice someone I know had to make to give up a child many years ago she had at 16. How much of the choices she made were hers, or where they hers being in between a rock and a hard place. Yet, I was absolutely horrified when someone who should have known better choose to shame her recently about this difficult ‘choice’ she made when her chips were down. It was for me, unforgivable and unable to retract.**

** I am saddened by how easy it is for us to shame mothers and brand them as promoters of immorality. Who died and appointed you god of morals? **

** I am saddened by how often it is the teen mother will be the one solely responsible to raise the child. Society makes it easy for men to relegate their paternal roles; they do not get tested as a pre condition to entry in schools, in the army et al and sanctioned for ‘being pregnant’, they can often absolve their responsibilities and move around the world freely with their aspirations intact and with little or no consequences. They face little or no shame at all for absconding their responsibility as parents and this burden is over emphasised to the young mother. She is expected to live up to a higher standard of parenthood that men will not have to be held up to at all. **

Considering the world today and the double bind dilemma for women trying to pursue a better set of livelihood and circumstances; often society gives women who are ambitious face two conflicting messages from society. Their desires to get back in school and to pursue efforts to progress them socially sees them as ‘neglecting their gender roles and parental duties for the ‘selfish’ reasons of careers.’ And for those who find themselves unable to get passed the systemic barriers to for upward mobility face an equally disturbing message of being ‘incapable and irresponsible to bring up children when unable to make ends meet.”  What the hell is wrong with people??? I am deeply disturbed by this.

  • It is about time for us to interrupt this set of sordid affairs and begin to treat teen mothers with respect, dignity and more importantly compassion.
  • Your indifference makes you complicit to this injustice.
  • Your bigotry makes you small-minded.
  • Your sanctimonious judgement makes you pretentious.
  • Your moral policing is tantamount to a ‘mob–injustice’ which you have no right to exercise over another human being.

Even now, not a day goes when I do not feel very vividly the sting, blame and condemnation of being a teen mother. Does it help that I am queer, no, it just adds to one of the other things society places on me as a burden to bear. I have even been labeled a misandrist... But you know what, I will stand by my decisions because none of them good, bad and ugly were easy choices to make. For that, I am unrepentantly unapologetic and resoundingly alive, for that I am grateful. And, I will not be defined by your hypercritical moralizing until the day the playing field is level and we are all judged by the same standard gauge system. 

I stand tall and proud for this and for any woman who has had to live in this cruel fucked up world. And for all of you who have spewed your hate and intolerance my way, thank you, you are the reason I am stronger today. I will not be defined by your hate and I will keep on despite or in spite of it.

So stop this stupid backward mentality of the likes of Magufuli. Stop it immediately and with haste.  

Teen mom stigma must end like yesterday so that we can build a better tomorrow.
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