How drought increases unplanned pregnancies

LIFE has not been kind to Julien Konjak, 17. Since she gave birth at the age of 16, the negative response of her friends and community has been depressing for her. Her situation has been exacerbated by the country’s ongoing drought.

“All I want to do is give my baby a good life,” she says.

It is a cold winter’s morning in Onderombapa, a remote settlement more than 300km east of the capital city, Windhoek. Despite the freezing wind, Julien is inadequately dressed. “I don’t have warm clothes,” she says. Her baby, at least, looks snug.

Namibia has been in the grip of the drought since last year, when President Hage Geingob declared a state of emergency and asked development partners to join the government’s response efforts.

To help the affected communities, dignity kits containing sanitary pads, soap, toiletries and washing powder have been distributed by UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. In the face of natural disasters, the sanitary supplies help women and girls maintain their hygiene.

For Julien, the assistance has come at a good time. She lives with her aunt, who is the household breadwinner, as her mother is not in good health. The family is struggling to make ends meet.

“I sell traditional beer to take care of all six people living in this one-roomed kaya (home),” says her aunt, Reniece Gogoses.

While distributing the kits, UNFPA provided information on sexual and reproductive health, including how to prevent unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

“I just wish I received [such information] before I gave birth,” says Julien.

Her situation is not unusual. In communities beset by poverty, older men may take advantage of adolescent girls for their own sexual benefit, to the detriment of the girls.

An unplanned early pregnancy can derail a girl’s education, future employment prospects and her ability to achieve her full potential.

Namibia has a young population, with two thirds below the age of 35 years. About one in five young women aged 15 to 19 years, or 19 per cent, has begun childbearing.

“Growing up, things were not easy. We were suffering a lot. We had to rely on [good] samaritans, neighbours or family members,” Julien says. Because her mother was unemployed, they did not always have money for food and she often went hungry at school. Like many adolescents, Julien planned a better life for herself – but significant challenges lay ahead.

Puberty was a difficult, watershed moment for her.

To meet her extra needs, she would ask her family members and peers to help with sanitary pads and cream and soap to wash herself. “But then I met a man who worked as a gardener at our school. He told me that he liked me and asked me what my needs were, and started buying me things,” she says shyly.