THIRTY mothers sit under a tree at Sinqondo in Quthing while waiting for their children to be attended to by medical officers at Dilli-Dilli Health Centre.
The mothers are strikingly young with ages ranging from 13 to 21.
While their peers are still busy in school or playing adolescent games, some of them are already in their second or third pregnancies.
This is the communal norm according to Dilli-Dilli Health Centre nurse, Setsoto Makuebu.
“The community has normalised underage pregnancy and child marriages,” Ms Makuebu told the Lesotho Times during a recent tour of the area.
“Those without children or who are unmarried are even stigmatised and discriminated.”
Previous advocacy efforts against child marriages and teenage pregnancies have not yielded any positive results.
However, Ms Makuebu said they have recently embarked onto a new campaign that involves, teachers, village health workers, nurses, area chiefs and the police to conscientise the communities about the dangers of teenage pregnancies.
Among the young mothers is 19-year-old Julia Beroane, a mother of one. Her child is only a month old. Ms Beroane by her 22-year-old boyfriend immediately after announcing that she was pregnant.
Patiently holding her baby, she repeatedly lulls her to sleep.
“My mother passed away in 2014,” Ms Beroane adding that she is now living with her aunt.
Ms Beroane fell head over heels with her 22-year-old boyfriend and all was rosy until she fell pregnant. Their two-year-old romance died immediately and she has not heard from him since then. She and her baby now rely on her aunt for survival.
Ms Beroane is one of young mothers benefitting from a United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) and Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) outreach programme teaching women and children about sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR).
The two organisations recently visited Quthing to get an appreciation of the challenges that are being faced by women and girls in the Dilli-Dilli and Mt Moorosi areas.
But Ms Makuebu says past efforts have also failed because community elders condone the practice of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. She however, hopes for a better result this time around.
“Elders in the community condone the practice hence advocacy requires a strong and committed team which is willing to bring change.
“We have now decided to form a health centre committee that comprises of a nurse, a police officer, a community councilor, a village health worker, a teacher, an area chief and two youth representatives.
“The committee is tasked with speaking with the community starting with the elders so that they also counsel their children about SRHR, use of contraceptives, the right time to engage in intercourse, the importance of education and rights.”
While she is hopeful, Ms Makuebu said the biggest challenge will come from men who are traditionally dominant in relationships. Whatever they say in relationships goes, she said. This is also worsened by the huge age difference between most young mothers and their older husbands.
“Some of the young women who seek family planning services at the clinic have reported that their partners them forbid them from using contraception because of various myths and misconceptions. Sometimes we convince them to embark onto contraception only for them to defer because they would have been ordered off by their husband.
“We had an incident where one young mother said her husband forcibly removed and implant that we had installed onto her arm with a knife. So, you can imagine what some of the young women go through when they seek help. They are made to believe that their job is to bear children.”
Next to Ms Beroane sits 23-year-old Khauhelo Khoelane, a mother of a 20 months old baby. She married her 25-year-old sweetheart three years ago.
Prior to her marriage, Ms Khoelane was on contraceptives. She primarily chose to use contraceptives because they suppressed her monthly menstrual periods because she could not afford sanitary pads. Sanitary pads are a luxury for the rich in the community.
“I heard other women talking about the contraceptives. I then decided to try them. I only stopped using them at the instruction of my husband. He wanted a child. I was not ready to have a child. I did not want to stop using contraceptives but I had to because of my husband,” Ms Khoelane said.
Nevertheless, a few months later, she was pregnant with her first born. While she welcomed her bundle of joy into her arms.
“We have since separated. We clashed a lot with his relatives.”
Teenage pregnancies are common for girls as young as 13 in Dilli-Dilli and this has motivated the partnership between the UNFPA and the LPPA.
UNFPA national program analyst, ‘Maseretse Ratia said almost eight in every 10 females in Lesotho aged 15 to 19 years have had their first sexual encounter. The numbers are worryingly high compared to males where only one in every 10 would have had sex when they are between 15 to 24 years old.
Quthing ranks highest in teenage pregnancies, Ms Ratia said. In 2015 alone, 23 percent of all pregnancies in Quthing were of teenagers. This means four girls in every 10 were pregnant with their first child.
However, the statistics are not shocking for Ms Makuebu.
“Early pregnancies have been normalised by elders in this community,” Ms Makuebu said.
“We hope our committee will address this challenge.”
Although the apathy of men in conscientization activities has been problematic in the past, Ms Makuebu says there is light at the end of the tunnel. From October to December 2019, about 19 100 males and females accessed family planning services at Dilli-Dilli Health Centre.
The numbers declined this year because of travel restrictions after the Covid-19 outbreak with only 2 406 people accessing family planning services from July to September 2020.
Parliamentary social cluster portfolio committee chairperson, Fako Moshoeshoe, said they are planning to visit communities to sensitise them about the dangers of teenage pregnancies.
Mr Moshoeshoe however, said they were banking on the financial support of the Southern African Development Community Forum (SADC) Parliamentary Forum’s SRHR initiative.
Mr Moshoeshoe also said Lesotho is on the verge of finalising the amendment of the Child Protection Act of 2010, a legal framework which will be used to protect children from abuses such as child marriage.
“The bill will probably be presented in parliament before the end of this year for parliamentary discussion and eventually enactment into law,” Mr Moshoeshoe said.