Breaking the Bias: Getting adolescent mothers back in school

March 8, 2022

Lala, mtoto lala…” sings 15-year-old Kethi to her nursing baby. She is home on lunch break, and she needs to make it back to school in time for the afternoon lessons. This is her first term back in school since she had her baby over a year ago. While it has been a struggle juggling motherhood and education, she would not change anything for the world. Going back to class has been a collective effort for the entire family – during the day, her mother watches the baby while tending to her small business by the roadside. After school, Kethi comes home to a balancing act of house chores, homework, and her baby. The headteacher at her school has also been supportive, encouraging her to resume her studies and making allowance for her to attend to her child as she needs to. 

Kethi is fortunate to have this support system that allows her to go back to school and pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many other pregnant and parenting adolescents across sub-Saharan Africa. Lack of policies and/or poor implementation of existing regulations that provide for school re-entry make it difficult for these adolescents to come back into the education system. This has a knock-on effect on opportunities accessible to them and their children. Countries should institute and implement policies and programs that support young mothers returning to school. These girls should also receive adequate support and information on issues that affect them, such as their sexual and reproductive health and rights, to improve their livelihoods. 

Adolescent pregnancy is a global issue, with one in every six girls giving birth before eighteen. One in four young women in sub-Saharan Africa gives birth before their 18th birthday. Of every 1000 girls, there are 136 and 132 births in Malawi. and Burkina Faso, respectively. 

Challenges facing pregnant and parenting adolescents

Young mothers face numerous challenges ranging from their newfound childcare responsibilities to lack of emotional support, poor access to healthcare, and stigma from the community among others. The transition to motherhood for Kethi, just like many adolescent mothers, was not easy given her lack of emotional maturity and maternal skills. Most adolescent mothers cannot financially cater to their own needs and those of their children. Given this lack of knowledge and skills, they mainly depend on others for support. As a result, many adolescent mothers face mental health problems such as depression. 

Unintended pregnancy has a negative effect on their education since most pregnant and parenting adolescent girls drop out of school, with limited prospects of returning to complete their education. 

What do teenage mothers need?

Adolescent mothers need support given their limited knowledge of motherhood as well as limited financial abilities. Research from a  study by APHRC on the lived experiences of pregnant and parenting girls in Burkina Faso and Malawi point to their willingness to return to school; however, they face many hindrances. For example, although Malawi has a policy that supports the readmission of learners in school, the readmission procedures are unclear and tedious. In Burkina Faso, there is no clear policy on the readmission of pregnant and parenting learners back to school. 

Having policies and programs instituted to support the readmission of young mothers will go a long way in providing an enabling environment to empower adolescent mothers. Other barriers to school re-entry must also be addressed. These barriers include the lack of financial resources for fees and other school-related expenses and the lack of childcare support. Provision of comprehensive sexuality education is also necessary to prevent repeat pregnancies among adolescent mothers. In Malawi, for instance, the readmission policy recognizes that comprehensive sexuality education ought to be provided to the learners.

The PROMOTE Project

The African Population and Health Research Center, in partnership with the Centre for Social Research (University of Malawi) and the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de la Population (Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Burkina Faso) are implementing a project titled, “Action to empower adolescent mothers in Burkina Faso and Malawi to improve their sexual and reproductive health” or PROMOTE. The project seeks to estimate the cumulative effect of three interventions–conditional cash transfers based on school reentry,  subsidized childcare support, and life skills training–on facilitating school re-entry for adolescent mothers and improving their health and wellbeing.

As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, breaking the biases that hold adolescent mothers from realizing their full potential will provide the much-needed environment for their prosperity and that of their children.

For Kethi, and many other adolescent mothers across sub-Saharan Africa, motherhood should not be an obstacle to attaining their dreams and aspirations. Governments ought to provide an enabling policy and legal environment by instituting and ensuring the implementation of policies that support the readmission of young mothers back to school.