Fourteen-year-old Mulenga wants to play, but she can’t find the time. She’s too busy being a mother.
Mulenga, from Zambia, is one of 2 million girls globally who will give birth in any given year before their 15th birthdays an estimated 5,500 births per day. It’s a crisis that rarely gets attention, but a new photo project is trying to change that.
Child rights organization Plan International and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched an exhibition on Sunday called #childmothers, which features Mulenga’s story. The initiative aims to inspire support for young mothers, while also looking to curb the global crisis of very early motherhood.
There are millions of girls in the world who become mothers when they are children.
Child mothers are often child brides, forced out of school at a young age to start a family when they’re still children themselves. Many of these girls face serious health complications in pregnancy and delivery. Many, in fact, don’t survive.
“There are millions of girls in the world who become mothers when they are children,” Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, said in a release. “These girls are often denied their rights and need support.”
Instead of casting judgment on child mothers as responsible for their own hardships, Plan International and UNFPA hope telling the girls’ stories in their own words will bring attention to the inequalities that put them at risk of early pregnancy, including poverty, gender inequality, discrimination and lack of access to services.
The #childmothers photo exhibit, featuring the stories and portraits of 15 young mothers from five countries, will premiere at the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen on May 17. The exhibit coincides with theWomen Deliverconference, which focuses on the health and rights of girls and women.
The exhibit will remain in Denmark over the summer, with plans to take the exhibition on the road around the world.For a first look at some of the harrowing stories featured, read a powerful selection of five #childmothers below.
Lumilene, 15, Haiti
Lumilene, 15, lives with her 6-month-old daughter Clairina and her parents in a camp for internally displaced people created in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The natural disaster destroyed their home and crumbled their finances
At 14, Lumilene discovered she was expecting a child with her then-boyfriend. She wanted to “get rid of the baby,” but her mother wouldnt allow it. Lumilene had terrible morning sickness for four months, forcing her to quit school.
Though she had a painful, 24-hour labor, she says she felt no fear.
“The hospital didnt give me any pain relief,” she tells Plan International. “They just used scissors and made a cut.”
“The hospital didnt give me any pain relief. They just used scissors and made a cut.”
That cut took time to heal her whole body ached, and she couldn’t walk, forcing her to stay in bed. Though labor was hard and she was initially hesitant to keep her child, Lumilene says it was worth it.
She’s now back in school, in the eighth grade. Her mother watches Clairina during school hours, but Lumilene finds balancing school and motherly responsibilities challenging.
She isn’t the only mother in her school. Many of the girls are very poor, and Lumilene says she’s heard rumors some trade sex for money and food.
“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t joke with men and never become their friend,” she says. “Once you’re their friend, they can do whatever they want to you. Here, it’s hard for a girl to say no.”
Lumilene says she has given up her dream of becoming a nurse. Her parents, after all, dont have the money to pay for her education. Instead, she says, she’d like Clairina to become a nurse.
“She can live out my dream,” she says.
Janet, 15, Colombia
Fifteen-year-old Janet lives with her boyfriend and their 6-month-old son, Manuel, in a violent neighborhood in a large Colombian city. She met her boyfriend at school, fell in love and became pregnant after contraception failed.
Janet is back in school, but her boyfriend had to halt his education to look for work, in order to support the family.
“The first few days after I came back from hospital with the baby, I felt a little weird,” she says. “In a way, it didnt feel like he was my son, even though I knew he was.”
“The majority of my friends are mothers and some of them have an even more complicated situation than me.”
Still, Janet says being a mother is a “beautiful experience” though it can be hard. Even though she has a support network with her family and boyfriend, finances are a strain.
“What’s difficult sometimes is that I have no money to buy him his food or his diapers,” she says. “When I dont have anything to eat or food for Manuel, my family helps out. I’m so happy that I have my family and I love visiting them, talking with my sister and grabbing a bite from their fridge.”
Janet now uses a contraceptive implant, a device that lasts for three years, after which she plans to replace it. She doesnt think she wants another child for another seven to 10 years.
“I don’t really understand why more girls dont use contraception,” she says. “The majority of my friends are mothers, and some of them have an even more complicated situation than me.”
Rabeya, 16, Bangladesh
At age 13, Rabeya married her husband. Now 16, she lives with her three-year-old daughter, Kushum, her husband, Jalal, and her in-laws in a rural part of Bangladesh.
Over the past three years, Rabeya has been pregnant three times. Each time, she lost a lot of weight and suffered from anemia. Only one of her children survived.
“I didn’t realize when I got pregnant the first time at 13,” she says. “I threw up and often felt sick. Then the others told me that I was pregnant. I became very thin, like a stick. So even though the size of my belly grew, I was losing weight.”
Rabeya says she had no knowledge of sex education or family planning before becoming pregnant. The women in her family discouraged her from talking to her husband about those topics.
“I dont want to have any more children. I dont have any more energy.”
After losing a baby a year ago, Rabeya’s concerned aunt told her about contraceptive injections. Since getting injections at a local health center, Rabeya has stopped menstruating, helping her have more energy and gain weight.
“I dont want to have any more children,” she says. “I dont have any more energy.”
Looking to the future, Rabeya hopes she and her husband can buy their own house. She has given up dreams of being a teacher, saying she’s accepted that her role as a wife has to come first.But for her daughter, she dreams big.
“When she grows up, I want her to know she can do anything she wants,” she says. “I want to give her everything.”
Kiswendsida, 15, Burkina Faso
Fifteen-year-old Kiswendsida lives with her infant daughter, grandparents and aunts in the outskirts of a city in Burkina Faso. She became pregnant at age 14 by her then-boyfriend.
“When I realized I was pregnant, I told him and we talked about it,” she says. “My family reacted badly when they found out, and now I don’t see him anymore.”
“I feel alone and miss my parents.”
Though her family reacted negatively to the news, they have been supportive especially her grandmother. Because of her support, Kiswendsida has been able to continue her education. But she still experiences hardship.
“I feel alone and miss my parents,” she says. “They work in the Ivory Coast and haven’t seen the baby yet.”
Before her pregnancy, Kiswendsida knew very little about contraception, sex and pregnancy. She says she wishes her school would have educated her about the realities of motherhood.
“In the future, I would like to have more children but not now,” she says. “I think 26 is a good age.”
Mulenga, 14, Zambia
Fourteen-year-old Mulenga lives in a remote Zambian village with her infant daughter, parents, her father’s second wife and 10 siblings. Before becoming pregnant, she went to school and dreamed of becoming a doctor. But since giving birth, those pursuits have been put on hold.
“It’s difficult being a mother,” she says. “I don’t have time to play anymore … Before I had a baby, I used to play and go wherever I wanted.”
Mulenga discovered she was pregnant after her mother figured out it was why she was feeling ill for a prolonged period. At the time, Mulenga didn’t even know how a woman became pregnant. After realizing she was expecting, she told her then-boyfriend, but he denied responsibility. Her father was furious.
“Before I had a baby, I used to play and go wherever I wanted.
“My father took me to my boyfriend’s home and told his parents, ‘We’ve brought this child here because she’s pregnant. You can only return her once you’ve paid us 5,000 Kwacha [about $100],'” she says.”It took four months before they paid a third of the money, and I had to stay there during that time.”
As her due date came closer, Mulenga was petrified.
“When the nurse told me what it was like to give birth, I thought I might die,” she says. Though her delivery was painful, she was able to give birth without any complications.
Now a few months into motherhood, Mulenga still relies on her mother to help care for her child. She often worries about money, fearing her baby may have to go without necessities, like clothes and soap. She plans to continue her studies when her child is older, hoping she can become a nurse to help provide for her daughter.
“I don’t like being a mother, but I like my child,” she says.
What you can do to help child mothers around the world
Support organizations working to curb the crisis.
Several nonprofits and NGOs are working to help address the global inequalities that make very early motherhood a reality.
Organizations like Plan International, CARE, Every Mother Counts and EngenderHealth have been working for years to give young girls access to sexual health information and young mothers access to health services and support.
Donations allow their work to continue, undoubtedly saving lives in the process.
Help provide clean birthing kits.
Unsanitary birthing conditions are a major source of complications for mothers in developing nations. Birthing kits help make the process of labor and delivery a little cleaner, preventing infections for both mother and child.
Kits consist of six items: a bar of soap, a plastic sheet to deliver on, gloves for those aiding in delivery, a razor blade to cut the umbilical cord, an umbilical tie and a clean cloth. Often, a pictorial guide illustrating proper cleanliness and the delivery process is included.
UNFPA provides three kits to women in need for every $11 donated to its efforts. You can givehere.
Advocate for global protections for young girls.
Issues like child marriage, sexual violence, and a lack of access to contraception and sex education directly intertwine with this maternal health crisis. To curb the crisis of young motherhood, it’s necessary to support girls in general.
Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect the identities of the child mothers featured. Interviews with child mothers were conducted by Plan International Sweden press officer Sofia Klemming Nordenskild. All photos taken by photographer and filmmaker Pieter ten Hoopen.
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