SHE IS only 17, but each morning is a reminder of her losses in life. As Pretty Nyathi* forces herself out of bed, feeds her baby, bundles him on her back and rushes to the market to buy vegetables to sell on the streets of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe she wishes her life were different.
“There is nothing fancy about being a teen mother,” she said.
“I wish I could reverse the hands of time and go back to school and be like any other girl.”
Five years ago her mother died and Nyathi went to live with her grandmother, who runs a shebeen (informal bar) in Tsholotsho, 116 kms north-east of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.
At age 14, she was raped by a shebeen client. “I tried reaching out to my grandmother, but she would threaten to throw me out,” she said.
Soon the grandmother forced the girl into prostitution with clients. “I have lost count of the men I slept with and I did not use protection,” Nyathi said.
In 2012 she ran away to Bulawayo, where she lived in the streets and survived through commercial sex. Two months later she found herself pregnant and was told at the clinic that she was HIV-positive. A pastor took her to a shelter and she started anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment at Mpilo Hospital.
“By the grace of the Lord, my baby is HIV-negative,” she said.
She lives with a relative, but struggles to follow the ARV treatment and have “a balanced diet that would help me live longer and at least see my daughter go to school”.
Nyathi is one example of the trend of rising teen pregnancies in Zimbabwe.
In 2011, the fertility rate among teenage girls aged 15-19 was 112 births per 1 000 girls, compared to 99 births per 1 000 girls in 2006, according to the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (ZDHS).
“That is a significant increase,” Stewart Muchapera, communications analyst with the United Nations Population Fund in Zimbabwe, said.
Girls living in the rural areas, like Nyathi, are twice as much affected by teenage pregnancies, at a rate of 144 births per 1 000 girls, compared to 70 births per 1 000 urban girls.
“Puberty is a time of rapid biological change and this stage of development needs to be well managed for young people to pass through it safely,” Muchapera said.
Among the many causes of teenage pregnancy, he mentions the lack of adequate, accurate information on puberty, which leaves young people dependent on uninformed peer sources or unguided internet searches.
Some cultural or religious norms such as child marriage and social issues like inter-generational sex, sexual coercion and transactional sex also contribute to teenage pregnancy, he said.
The ZDHS reports that nine out of ten sexually active women aged 15 to 19 are in some form of a marriage, and that for two out of three girls who first had sex before age 15, sex was forced against their will.
In addition, the political and economic crisis of the last decade has brought widespread poverty and disruption of health and education services. Girls engage in risky transactional sex as a means to food, clothes, school and security.
Simanga Nkomo, a midwife in Bulawayo, said that every year she assists younger mothers, some aged 14 and even younger.
“The increase is worrisome, as most of these teenagers are uninformed about maternal health and they risk succumbing to maternal mortality,” she said.
The risk of maternal death is twice as high for girls aged 15 to 19 than for women in their 20s, and five times higher for girls aged 10 to 14 years.
Sipho Ncube is another teen mother from Bulawayo. She had good grades in her last year of high school but quit studying when she fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, now seven months old.
“It started as a fling and one thing led to another until I discovered I was pregnant. I had knowledge of contraceptives but for some reason I did not use any,” she said.
Ncube and her baby are HIV negative. But it could easily have been otherwise: national seroprevalence is nearly 15% among adults aged 15-49.
Some 120 000 young Zimbabweans aged 15-19 contracted HIV in 2012, and 63 000 of these were girls, estimates the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Ncube’s parents, who work in South Africa, visit three times a year and send a little money. She looks after her siblings, aged 13 and seven, in a two-room rented house in Mpopoma, a high-density suburb. The baby’s father is working in Victoria Falls and helps financially whenever he can.
“I regret everything, but I have to live with the silly choices I made,” Ncube said. “I wish to go back to school and be able to fend for the baby.”
Names withheld to protect privacy