Voices | Attending to teen pregnancy: strengthening the Liberian family system

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This week I received a phone call from a reader. She read my paper on weak family systems in Liberia and urged me to address the subject of teen pregnancy in a follow up article. She told me: “My teenage son is now a father. I am not working and many of his friends are also becoming fathers. The burden for caring for these children, then falls on the girls or their parents. I want you to please write something about this issue. But I do not want for you to address this issue like other people do. I want you to find a way and focus heavily on the boys and the men.”

I told her that she was asking me to take on a subject that was quite tough. I expressed a reluctance to write the article given the complexity. I worried about the enormity of the gap in our knowledge about youth in Liberia and the work it would take to piece together the scattered literature. She insisted that Liberian children are an “invisible group” and so they are “irrelevant” in the eyes of many of the people in power. Furthermore, she argued: “This is a major cause of the weak family system that you described so well. I am hoping that you will break it down and help us understand it.” I had no alternative, but to take a stab at the subject in appreciation of the reader’s belief that I could do justice to it.

Research done in other nations identifies four areas that can evidence suggest provide positive outcomes in attending to weak family systems, and there could be more. “Early childhood education, infant and toddler program, K-12 school curriculum reform and teen pregnancy prevention” are mentioned in this regard. Well, each of these areas is being tackled by the Sirleaf administration in one form or another, including the development of a Children’s Legislation, but question remains if they are being addressed holistically and systemically.

I restrict the discussion in this article to teen pregnancy to fulfill my commitment to the driver of the paper. Healthy development of the next generation is critical to any effort aimed at strengthening the weak family system that has pivoted our socioeconomic development backwards. I should mention that this is not an academic paper. Instead, it is an effort to dig into the existing academic and non-academic literature on teen pregnancy to find substantive content that would answer the questions that propelled this paper.

The Context

Emerging from war, teen pregnancy is one of its after-effects with which our leaders and the larger society must deal. Adolescents make up 18% of the population. According to a report by Safe the Children, one of the most reputable child welfare agencies working in the country, Liberia is one of ten Sub-Saharan Africa nations with the highest risk for teen maternal mortality (teen dying from child-birth). The Liberian Demographic and Health Survey (LDHS) notes that one out of three girls/women ages 15-19, have had children. From the vantage point of school enrollment, a startling disparity exists. While 54% of boys are enrolled in school, only 31% of girls are enrolled in school. Notably, school enrollment among Liberian children ranks at 50% or slightly over.

Consequences

Where teen pregnancy is high, we can argue that a high number of children are beginning their lives from disadvantaged points. Wide array of social science literature points to teen birth as having numerous adverse consequences for the children of teen parents. High vulnerability to child abuse and neglect, poor academic performance, and elevated risks of delinquency and crime are mentioned by social scientists who study this subject as results of teen pregnancy. Worrisome, is the fact that teen parents are known to start a vicious cycle that is hard to break once it gets started and prevention is the best cure. The cognitive delay of their children and even mental health disorders are cited as likely consequences of teen pregnancies.

High levels of psychosocial problems have been attributed to teen pregnancies and child birth, especially among girls. Low self-esteem and mood disorders are also reported to be side effects of teen pregnancy. Teen girls who have children are known to smoke, use illicit substances and suffer violence from their partners. Teen fatherhood is susceptible to a cluster of bad results: poor academic achievement, substance use and misuse and delinquent behavior. Teen parents especially those who live in the rural sector where inactivity is their lot or those in urban communities (street children and homeless youth) are at-risk of poverty, drug use, and an array of dangerous and unsafe sexual practices, including promiscuity. Among these hard-to-reach and underserved youth, worries about the basic necessities often force them to place limited or no value on their sexual safety and health. Given that teen pregnancy leads to high school dropout, there are ripple effects on career aspirations. Consequently, economic effects include low earning potential and unemployment.

Possible Solutions

Admittedly, teen pregnancy is a complex subject. It has multifaceted underlying factors. Therefore, our solutions must be multipronged and geared toward undercutting the multiple streams of socioeconomic contributing factors. In societies like Canada where teen pregnancy has declined, it is attributed to access to contraceptives and increased awareness of the risk of unprotected sex like contacting HIV/AIDS.

We should allocate part of the PRS budget to an array of teen pregnancy prevention programs, in addition to the Clinton Foundation’s commitment to keeping girls in school in Liberia. For example, we can focus these allocations on teen outreach programs and well-thought out volunteer services and youth development programs that experts say have greater success rates in preventing teen pregnancy. These programs can be gender neutral. Most importantly, they do not have to be overtly focused on traditional family planning interventions.

Another area that professionals say help to reverse teen pregnancies and births is to strengthen their decision making capacities. Lapses in judgment have been recognized to cause teen pregnancy. In and after school programs that are rooted in equipping youth with core values that teach “old-fashioned restraints” or reduce poor judgment are also known to reduce teen pregnancy. These should also be accompanied by psychosocial interventions that help youth manage their emotions, particularly bolstering their self-image and preventing negative peer pressure.

The Gender and Development Ministry is working hard to ensure enforcement of the rape laws particularly against adults who engage in sexual conduct with minors, and that is a positive sign. Women’s rights are becoming a recognized feature in our society, and these are equally good indicators of increased enlightenment in Liberian society about gender equity. But beyond that, we might just need a government task force devoted exclusively to curbing poverty, but using teen pregnancy and teen child bearing as the programming devises.

Fostering Responsible Fatherhood

One stipulation that the reader who spurred this article made was that I focus on helping parents in her shoes address the role of boys in teen pregnancy. She reminded me that often the onus for teen pregnancy is placed on girls, forgetting that boys and men are equal participants. She highlighted poverty as a culprit and told me stories of her nieces that were now teen parents and the fathers, “lose older men.”

The reader’s admonition forced me to acknowledge a “hush hush” that surrounds teen pregnancy in Liberia that we must deal with as a society, if we are to make a significant dent in the high incidence of the problem. Girls do not get pregnant by themselves. Boys and men play half of the role; which means a “responsible fatherhood” project is necessary to address the male culpability that is often ignored in our quest for answers. Fatherhood projects must unravel the mix message that we send by not creating strong laws against sex crimes and to enforce child support.

The notion of “responsible fatherhood” has gained stronghold in many parts of the world, which targets unwanted or premature fatherhood. Responsible adult males lead community-based programs to help teenagers navigate transitions from teen to adulthood. Where risk factors are concentrated and widespread like among youth who have had contacts with the law or the sons of teen parents, early intervention is utilized to build awareness that can act as a check on possible propensity to repeat the patterns set by their parents.

The media has also been utilized to launch campaigns to help boys abstain from sex. Abstention campaigns, in conjunction with awareness efforts focused on contraception among sexually active youth are noted to be effective remedies. A psychological component to teen pregnancy prevention is also critical. Adults must get into the heads of teenagers and anticipate their next moves. What and how teenagers think matter. All adults were teenagers and are acutely aware of the sense of invulnerability that teenagers feel. Utilizing former teen parents to tell their stories about challenges they confront might deter teenagers who have the desire.

Since there is a ghost author writing this paper alongside me, I recall that she mentioned her son as already being a teen parent. Indeed, the article cannot ignore this population. When the pregnancy has already occurred, the last thing that a parent can say is “I told you so.” Class, race, family cultural backgrounds, and other variables play critical roles in answering why teen pregnancy is prevalent in some communities and less so in others. When teen pregnancy occurs, seeking a means through which to prevent a repeat occurrence is a starting point. Clear expectations that encourage responsible attitude, mainly ensuring that young men are consistently involved in the lives of their children have been noted as a great antidote to teen pregnancy.

The new grandparents, many of whom themselves are often parents of younger children must be supportive of their sons and daughters. However, they must do so to the extent that they encourage them to gain the requisite parenting skills and to enhance their capacities to be productive citizens. Alternative Education Programs (AEPS), vocational training programs, career counseling, employment, and community involvement are said to have played very critical role in helping the teen parent continue their schooling. Jobs programs play additional roles in the stabilization process.

Parenting is a communal affair and as a society, we must do everything to activate the proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Community expectations for girls must be the same for boys. Instead of heaping stigma on our children who unfortunately experience teen pregnancy or parenthood, we should translate our disdain into supportive structures.

Research Implications

For the Sirleaf administration to reduce teen pregnancy and child bearing, it has to engage in research given the significant gap in knowledge specific to Liberia. This would help policy makers to understand the various social, political, economic, and cultural factors that in the past 20 years have shaped the context, which made teen pregnancy and child bearing possible in high numbers. The research will have to examine how the problem is distributed geographically and among different ethnic groups and class. We should probe the present economic climate to understand how shortage of jobs for low-skilled people influences teen pregnancy and child bearing. Understanding our labor market trends and the availability of quality child care facilities will be important in assessing the retention of job seekers within the Liberian economy. The value of alternative, vocational and/or skill-based educational programs will be determined by research. A final research issue would be comparative analysis across counties on a long-term basis and within sub-groups to help inform policy and program development.

Policy Development Implications

With regards to teen pregnancy and the many associated social issues that affect the family, Liberia is a policy vacuum. As such, this paper cannot be completed without bridging teen pregnancy and public policy. Policy is important in many ways as it pertains to teen pregnancy. It would influence budgetary allocation, the choice of interventions and programs, the specific populations that will be targeted and how they will be differentiated. Ensuring that our curriculum in schools includes components that deal with reproductive health education is a policy matter. One of the barriers to change is conservative social norms such as values that make teen girls objects of stigma and scorn. If we are going to effectively address teen pregnancy it would require not only allocating resources, but altering the family and peer group influences that treat teen fathers as “rock star” by urging them to be responsible fathers. Worth repeating from an earlier paper, is that we should link our social welfare, gender, educational and labor policies to find their connection and constitute a robust family policy.

Program Development Implications

To break the cycle of teen pregnancy and child bearing, it is critical that we design programs that are rooted in evidence. And evidence suggests, at least preliminarily, that coming from war mental health problems are pervasive in Liberian society. Hence, screening for mental health status or incorporating it in program design would be essential. It is possible that depression and alcohol/drug dependence could be underlying causes of teen pregnancy and child bearing. Program development should also focus on enhancing the competencies of youth at an early age to spur school continuation and prevent school-drop-out. Programs should cluster specific risk factors for different sub-groups and design their interventions in a customized manner to increase success outcomes. Programs with early assessment components; that place emphasis on education and training, responsible and supportive adult involvement in the life of youth including mentoring delivered to foster long-term relationships have significant value. This is because many of these young people lack the psychological fortitude to resist societal pressures that come from their perilous living conditions.

Conclusion

No one should underestimate teen pregnancy and child bearing as vital contributing factors to the high incidence of poverty in Liberia. After 14 years of war, poverty has assaulted our children and resulted in low cognitive skills, mental health disorders, poor academic achievement, reduced their capacity to compete for occupational opportunities, and thus put them at immense risk for anti-social behavior and possibly crime. The goal of this paper has been to address a very complex subject through a narrow prism – that of a mother who is seeking to resolve an issue that has changed the dynamic of her family forever. Hopefully, I did justice to the reader’s request. To this reader, I remain a phone call away.

Editor’s Note: Emmanuel Dolo lives with his family in Champlain, Minnesota. He can be reached at emmanuel.dolo@yahoo.com and at 651-315-9580.