“CHILDREN are like little sponges when they are growing up, they absorb anything and everything, whether good or bad, that is why in our culture it is a taboo to tell them about sex at an early age.”
To some, it might sound like a very lame excuse, but talking to Teresia Sylvester, a resident of Sumbawanga, and looking at her serious face as she said this, then you come to realize that she meant every word.
The 54 year old mother of six says that in her culture, talking about sex to young girls tends to ‘give them ideas’, which she says might prompt them to try it out, because according to her, children are very curious lot.
She says that when she was growing up, she never heard her mother talk about sex with either her or her siblings, which might be the reason why at a tender age of 15, she found herself pregnant. “I did not know what to do, so I was forced to get married to the man who was responsible, but the marriage did not last, and by the time he left, I was only 22 years with five children,” she says.
This might be the reason why her first daughter dropped out of school when she was only 16, after becoming a victim of teenage pregnancy.
While presenting the 2020-25 Strategic Plan draft on eliminating early and school pregnancies in Rukwa region early this year, the Rukwa Regional Medical Officer (RMO), Dr Boniface Kasululu said more than 700 school girls dropped out of school in the region between 2017 and 2019 due to pregnancy.
In a programme implemented by YES Tanzania in partnership with Plan International Tanzania in Rukwa region, it has been revealed that cultural barriers play a big role in the number of early pregnancies, which also involves failure by parents to communicate to their children on the issues of Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH).
Shakira John, a 22 year old woman in Sumbawanga district in Rukwa region says that she dropped out of school at a tender age of 14 after becoming pregnant, and says that it would have made a big difference in her life if her parents had taken time to talk to her about SRH.
She says that when she was faced with the challenging task of whether to agree to sexual favors or walk for a long distance from home to school, she felt lost and did not have any defensive mechanism.
“I was walking from home one day and I met a bodaboda guy who volunteered to drop me home, I accepted, and for several days he would wait for me when I was coming from home and dropped me to school, so when he told me that he loved me, I honestly believed him, and it looked like a natural thing to do when he took me to his room and slept with me,” she says as she cradles her third child.
According to Emanuel Mbalwa, a Youth Development Officer from YES Tanzania, communication between a parent and his or her child is one of the most important parts of parenting, though not an easy one.
He says that it requires ongoing attention and time although it is difficult to both parents, because most parents become uncomfortable talking to their children about SRH.
He says that most parents believe that they are not the right people to talk with their children about those issues as their cultural norms allow this activity to be handled by senior or elders like grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles.
“There is a need to develop appropriate interventions for empowering parents to communicate with their adolescent children about the full range of sexual and reproductive health issues,” he says.
One of the parents in Rukwa region, after being asked whether she talks to her children about SRH, said that her traditional norms do not allow her to direct her child on issues of puberty, because in their culture it is shame for a parent to talk about puberty to his or her child, because this needs to be done by grandfathers and grandmothers.
Mbalwa says that apart from the challenge of lacking SRH information from their parents, adolescents may also lack knowledge of or access to, conventional methods of preventing pregnancy, as they may be too embarrassed or frightened to seek such information on their own.
He says that under the project ‘Eliminating teenage pregnancy’ which is implemented by YES Tanzania and funded by Plan International Tanzania, they aim to highlight sexual health education as one of the most important components of health promotion that involves motivation to adopt health promoting behaviour and help people make decisions put into practice.
“Effective health education therefore may produce changes in understanding or in ways of reasoning. It may bring some shift in beliefs and attitude or influence value and facilitate acquisition of skills and effect changes in life style and behaviour,” he says.
According to Plan International, adolescent pregnancy remains a major contributor to maternal and child mortality, with complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth being the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 globally.
Pregnant girls and adolescents also face other health risks and complications due to their immature bodies, because babies born to younger mothers are also at greater risk. Adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa have one of the highest birth rates compared to adolescents in the other regions of the world, accounting for a significant proportion of the overall fertility in many countries in the region.
“Communication between parents and adolescents regarding sexuality is an important reproductive health topic, and due to complexities associated with adolescent’s physiological development, sexuality should be dealt with holistically,” says Albert Mrema, a child development officer based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
He says that apart from traditional taboos in talking to girls about sex, several other factors also hinder parents from engaging in sexual discussion with their children, which includes being embarrassed.
He adds that there is also belief among guardians that reproductive health discussions with adolescents encourage sexual experimentation, while others believe that adolescents are too young to understand.