The time it takes to make a baby is the time it takes to make a cup of tea. But for many women motherhood can lead to a lifetime of poverty and regret – an unholy trinity of pregnant, single and living with HIV/AIDS.
When Chensha walked into my office with one child strapped to her back and three more clutching at her dress, I knew that hers would be one more story in the all too familiar pattern.
At 25 the burden of bearing four children to three different men was plain to see in her crumpled and stress worn appearance.
Although owed over P17 000 in maintenance, feeding herself and her hungry family was a constant struggle. Each of the fathers had a story to tell as to why they could not meet financial obligation towards their children.
The first one had been retrenched and could not find another job, another was a typical maintenance dodger who changed addresses as often as he changed partners, and the other paid reluctantly only when he was forced and had a few coins to spare.
She lived with the hope that one day the arrears would be collected and life would improve for her.
It was out of frustration that she visited the customary court hoping that the men could be persuaded to do something for their children. I sat down with her and had a heart to heart talk with the young woman.
Chensha had dropped out of school at the age of 16 after being ambushed by motherhood.
Then at 18 she met a man who looked after her and her first child.
This kind man seemed genuine enough and when he demanded that she should give something back by having his child, she agreed thinking that the relationship would last ‘forever.’
But when the man transferred to another town, he also transferred his attentions to another woman.
The third man in her life promised marriage and security, and on the bed of roses she naively imagined her future to lie, babies number three and four were produced.
When I met her she was single again. Abandoned with her brood of children, unskilled and unemployable except perhaps through Ipelegeng. One of the men realized how Chensha was struggling and offered to take custody of his child to relieve the mother, but while she was ready to let go of the child her family labeled her “dog” if she dared part with her child and “throw” him to ”people.” Chensha was trapped between the Red Sea and Egyptian horsemen.
*The customary courts show that an average of 20 young women a month present such cases desperately seeking meaningful solutions.
*According to a 2011 report,HIV prevalence among pregnant woman aged 15-49 was 30%, and eight out of 10 pregnant women of all ages were single.
* Poverty is more prevalent among female-headed households 46%, as compared to 27% for male-headed households.
*At 41%, unemployment rates amongst those 15-19 years of age, is 23 percentage points higher than the national average.
The question is, is there anything Chensha could do differently to alter her situation? Here are some points to consider.
*The older generation had a strategy no matter how “archaic” to make young men take responsibility for their reproductive health and young girls were taught to “go tswalatoisi” (to be stingy).
But today there is little social sanction against young women who have babies out of wedlock or with different men.
The same goes for men who impregnate women and take no responsibility for their offspring, which is seen as a deplored yet accepted element of masculinity. It is this attitude that allows men to escape their responsibilities.
*During the transition years, especially with the movement from village to city, all caution was thrown to the wind despite the fact that there are so many user-friendly prevention methods to assist individuals to plan with caution.
As one peer educator put it: “They know all about prevention but after a few months in a relationship trust kicks in and the condom is out.”
*Men can only support their children if they have the means to do so – if they claim they do not have two thebe to rub together,the law lets them off the hook. But whether a woman has the means or not, her children cling to her apron like a curse.
Added to this young people lack both the traditional solutions and a comprehensive social security and educational systems to help single parents.
*Then there is this syndrome of “are dire ngwana” – meaning let us make a child together that does not seem to take into account the individuals’ readiness and capability to protect the child by providing a home and the stability of a continuing relationship.
*Will our society ever consider it a viable option to let the father keep custody if he is willing and able?
These points and more are destined to keep many women in the poverty bracket. They are issues that are talked about in development conferences from Beijing to Bobonong, but when the talking stops, the reality remains.Poverty and strife are not romantic places to be.
Betrayed by not so strong maintenance laws and disempowering traditional practices, woman continue to be the poorest of the poor at the bottom of the social pyramid. It is time we did something about it.