Concern about rise in unwanted teenage pregnancies

Each year in Burkina Faso 500 girls experience unwanted pregnancies, many of them going on to abandon their newborn babies in toilets, in rubbish bins and behind buildings.

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The shocking phenomenon is becoming most widespread in the capital Ouagadougou as more people move to the city from the countryside.

Rural traditions which mean girls often marry at age 13 or younger, are clashing with the less conservative, promiscuous city life.

Girls, so uneducated they don’t even understand why they menstruate, have nowhere to turn as conservative values still hold strong and public health services are inadequate according to Asseta Sanfo, a government social worker.

Efforts to tackle the problem

“There is not a day when we do not receive an abandoned child in our centre or a mother who has fled, leaving the baby alone,” Sanfo, who works at a government-run hostel for pregnant girls in Ouagadougou, told IRIN.

With no more room in orphanages, and provincial authorities unable to cope, the national government stepped in for the first time in 2006 by building a hostel in Ouagadougou to care for pregnant mothers and their newborns.

Social workers there say where appropriate, they try to encourage mothers to keep their babies once born, rather than put them into orphanages, which are already over-stretched.

“We realised we had an obligation to accept every child brought [to orphanages] so we had to build a place to shelter the mothers and their offspring,” said Raphael Zongnaba, the government’s regional director of social welfare and national solidarity.

Asseta Sanfo, a social worker at the maternal hostel said: “If we do not help these girls they will seek to get rid of their babies wherever they can.”

The hostel currently shelters ten girls and 50 children but it relies on Italian government funding of US$13,500 a year to run it.

More help needed

With a quarter of all teenage girls in Burkina Faso either pregnant or mothers already, according to a Ministry of Health demographic survey, and just one government hospital to help them, the Catholic church and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are stepping in to fill the gap.

Sister Marie Ouedraogo works at Carmen Kisito, a Catholic church-backed centre that helps 100 pregnant women. It was set up in 2006 when church-members realised the orphanage they ran was receiving more abandoned children than orphans.

“Today four children out of five in our orphanage are abandoned children,” Ouedraogo said.

Carmen Kisito is dependent on small private donations, and with each birth costing from US$67 to US$336 depending on complications, resources are stretched, meaning sister Ouedraogo must scour the markets to find food cheap enough to feed all the girls.

Shame

Another NGO Mercy for All (UMPT) tries to give young mothers longer term help by giving each a loan of US$90 to help them support themselves once they have given birth.

Often families want nothing to do with the young mothers because of the shame they have brought on them, Etienne Zombra, a coordinator at UMPT told IRIN, so mediation is needed. So far, they have succeeded in reuniting 130 of the 164 girls they have received.

“Families often don’t accept the girls back because of their socio-cultural beliefs. In cases of incest it is even more difficult for girls and parents will refuse to see the baby forever.”

Next steps

Burkina Faso has a high birth rate, with an average of seven births per woman. It also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with mothers dying in 930 out of every 100,000 births, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=73851

With 86 per cent of all women and girls in the country engaging in unprotected sex according to a government health and demographic study from 2003, reproductive healthcare must be introduced into secondary education to try to stop girls from falling pregnant in the first place, said Siaka Traore, communication officer at UNFPA.

UNFPA is also launching a media campaign to inform teenagers of contraceptive methods.

Meanwhile, the government hopes to open a second hostel in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city. Construction has been delayed because of lack of funds.

‘”We are exclusively dependent on partners to build the centre,” government official Zongnaba said.

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