CHILDREN HAVING CHILDREN; WHAT IS THE REMEDY?
By Shifani Reffai
The country awoke to the shocking revelation of a 13 year-old Shanthi (not her real name) giving birth this week at the Embilipitiya Hospital. Sadly the facts behind the pregnancy remain that she is among approximately 121,164 teenage girls becoming pregnant in Sri Lanka during the past six months, according to the Ministry of Health. A care-free school-going child herself, Shanthi is now admitted at the Embilipitiya Hospital with a child of her own in her arms. But although the baby who was delivered on Tuesday (Dec.2) is reportedly sound and healthy, Shanthi though physically well is understandably far from happy. “The girl is still in a state of shock,” the Child and Women’s Bureau had to say about the case.
Parenting at thirteen?
According to police, a 13 year old boy had been taken in for questioning in relation to the incident. The baffling question of how a mere child was thrust into the world of motherhood before she even had a chance to mature into an independent person, and the scandal and sympathy that comes with such a situation, unfortunately has no clear answers at this moment. A young boy however has been arrested by the Katuwana police on suspicion of being the offender. The Katuwana police are conducting a thorough investigation into the matter, but neither they nor officials at the Embilipitiya Hospital have information on any developments. “Whatever the conditional details of the incident may have been nine months ago, what has happened to Shanthi is undoubtedly statutory rape under Sri Lankan law,” the Sri Lankan Human Rights Division told Daily Mirror. “We only hope she will recover soon and make a request for legal support against the offender. We will support her all the way, and with enough funds perhaps even offer rehabilitation.”
According to Professor Lakshman Dissanayake in his book based on studies of teenage pregnancies in the estate sector in Sri Lanka: “Teenage pregnancies are a social and health problem which leads to other problems such as underweight births. According to the sources, over 1.5 million persons use family planning methods while 33,401 deliveries have been reported and 38,205 pregnant mothers registered with the healthcare services during the past six months. The number of still births reported during the last six months was 20,609 and 3,097 infant deaths were reported during the same time period.”
His study indicates that ‘the majority believes that teenage pregnancies occur because of love affairs taking place without parents’ blessings in their adolescence ages which end up with teenage pregnancies.
The statistics tell tales
The study reveals that the majority had their first intercourse between the ages of 17 to 19. It also appears that the age at first intercourse increases with from 13 to 18. The average age at first intercourse is 18.07 years in this sample. Older teens are more likely than younger teens to be sexually active. It also shows that 37 respondents have had pre-marital sex in their teens. It is also quite interesting to note that 23.6 percent of the teenagers have had pre-marital sex. In addition, as noted earlier, the average age at first intercourse .21 years greater than the average age at marriage. The analysis also suggests that 7.7 women had partners before marriage and a majority of them had only one partner. Among them, 88 percent are boyfriends while others appear to be their family relatives. About 65 percent of women had become pregnant once before marriage and that appeared to happen between the ages of 15 to 19 years. When we asked the respondents how that happened, 5.4 percent said by force; 37.5 percent indicated with consent and 57.1 have mentioned it was without their knowledge.
Accordingly, 64 percent believe that this is a recent phenomenon but quite interestingly 36 percent have indicated that is not a recent phenomenon. Most teenage pregnancies end up with a live birth but still a substantial minority tends to terminate such pregnancies with an induced abortion. In relatively conservative Sri Lanka, it is quite understandable that people would react to such an infrequent incident in a way that would ostracize the victim of sexual assault and consequently reduce the chances of the offender being reported. Speaking of this possibility, women’s rights activist and member of a community service organization, Dr. Mareena Reffai, says, “We must make sure the perpetrator does not get away with this, lest others fall victim to him. Some publicity and intense investigation is necessary, but at the same time, conservative society must be reminded that the victim is not guilty of any crime. Shanthi must be allowed to lead a normal life along with her child.”
Although the social stigma that once attended out-of-wedlock pregnancy may have diminished in the Western world, in developing countries like Sri Lanka, social stigma can be treated as a major factor related to teenage pregnancies or out of wed-lock conceptions. “However, the risks of serious health consequences remain for babies born to mothers still in their teens. Children of teenagers are more likely to have low birth weights, and to suffer the associated health problems. Pregnant teens themselves are also at greater risk of health problems, including, for example, anaemia, hypertension, renal disease, and depressive disorders as well. Teenagers who engage in unprotected sex are putting their own health through sexually transmitted infections.
“Teenage pregnancy also has economic consequences. Childbearing may curtail education and thereby reduce a young woman’s employment prospects in a job market that requires higher levels of training,” adds the report.
The findings also suggest that health risks of mothers has been ranked as the major problem associated with the teenage pregnancies while about 24 percent have said the incapacity of bearing children by the teenagers also a significant problem. Teenage pregnancy is a major concern because of its impact on the overall health and wellbeing of both mother and child.
The human rights
The current scene of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights as regards to abuse against women and children has been dwindling since 2004 according to statistics. But needless to say, activists, media organizations and NGOs who are fighting for the mute voices of the abused are on the rise as well. Shanthi is still unable to speak of her obvious ordeal as a teenager forcefully shifted from her life as a grade-eight student to the socially and financially complicated role of an adult mother. With gradual therapy at the Embilipitiya Hospital, and the collective support of her family, the media and those who are willing to fight for her right as a woman and human being, it is the moral obligation of Sri Lankan society as a whole to see that justice is met. If not, for the sake of the law, for Shanthi and many thousands like her.