Where are the boys in the language on teen pregnancies?

The last couple of weeks have seen a number of reports in the local media about the various ongoing efforts to address the problem of teenage pregnancies.

The efforts are necessary given the depth of the crisis, though the concern may appear slightly skewed towards the girls with the boys somewhere in the background.

This was the verdict in yet another gathering of my acquaintances, among them a couple of colleagues in the business of development communication.

Before I come to them, it is worth recalling that among the reasons the problem should appear to take so long to tame is the many aspects involved, and how they tend to reinforce each other to allow for a lasting solution.

We know, for instance, that adolescent pregnancy is often not the result of a deliberate choice, but rather the absence of choices and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control. World over, it is often a consequence of little or no access to school, employment, quality information and health care.

In reinforcing each other, these facets encompass gender, patriarchal culture, family planning and poverty, among others, and have variously been the subject of the recent revisit in the local media.

However, there is another often overlooked aspect. It has to do with the fact that it is not often we in the media examine the nuances of our craft as conduits beyond merely delivering relevant and timely information.

Invested like the rest of the society in minding the girls’ welfare, it was in this realisation a lady in our gathering took issue with the language we use that may inadvertently be reinforcing stereotyped notions of female sexuality and gender inequality.

Perhaps it is because I am as guilty as the next person that I should come out with it. This, therefore, is not to point fingers.

What provoked the discussion was a report on the recent launch of the important Girl2Leader Campaign to empower girls, in which policymakers were reported to be mulling imposition of “strict punishments for adults who defile and impregnate teenagers.”

It was agreed the campaign is as laudable as it is necessary. The issue is the language bearing the news which our lady protagonist viewed as counterintuitive to the campaign’s intent.

She lamented how boys at times get lost in the language. Aside from the apparent oversight in the sentence that it is them who grow up to be men, there are a couple other aspects that irked her and another colleague.

The first is the word “defile”. The second is the suggestion of retribution in seeking to impose “strict punishment”.

It was noted that the word is common and often used in the media. However, by definition, to defile may either mean to pollute, corrupt, ruin, tarnish or taint.

The argument went that, while it may be in reference to the teenager’s person, reputation, future prospects, and so on, it had nothing to do with the alluded “purity” of the girl. That is an archaic notion.

Rather, the word seems to suggest something only being done to the teenager; it seems to remove or overlook her agency as an able person.

In this age of enlightened inclusion of women, our protagonist argued, the word is patronising.

The teens – both female and male – should be capable of warding off unwanted advances, which is the raison d’être for the empowerment initiatives that should actively also include the boys for them to be part of the solution.

However, consider also the more adversarial approach to solving the teen pregnancy problem, as implied in punishment.

A colleague particularly took issue with a recent commentary in the local media. The commentary viewed it as an issue of tit-for-tat in terms of punitive consequences – that, if the girl should bear the responsibility for carrying the pregnancy and any negative consequences arising from it, whoever was her partner should suffer some form of pain or retribution in return.

The commentary expressed the belief that instead of “forced fatherhood”, as some of our cultural perceptions of justice may prescribe, “there should be harsh punitive measures for men/boys who impregnate teenagers.”

Coming from a health professional, the commentary did not mention to what extent, or whether punitive measures ever had a deterrent effect, which should have been the issue of more concern. There are more amicable solutions.

Thus, the gathering agreed that while culpability may be necessary in accordance with the law, even as it may be modified to invoke harsher sentences as a possible deterrent, there are more amiable and preventive approaches already available to promote safe sex.

To complement ongoing efforts, for instance, bearing in mind it is as much about the boys as the girls, is the existence of youth spaces at health centres across the country through which they are supposed to access contraceptives.

However, research shows that the youth are not using them. It is this that should be looked into as a matter of urgency if one looks at the statistics.

Available figures indicate that at least 17,000 girls aged 15-19 years got pregnant in 2016. This makes it statistically definitive that a significant number of our teenagers are engaging in sex, whether it is resulting in pregnancy or not.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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