By Nompulelo Dlamini

Eswatini has over the years seen a spike in the number of school dropouts due to teenage pregnancies.

Between 2001 and 2017, a total 82 978 teenage girls fell pregnant (Eswatini Health Management Information Systems). What does this mean for the country? Why is it important to understand the implications of teenage pregnancies in Eswatini?

The modern world is a moving target that keeps setting the development bar higher and higher. It is a fast life – which to a great extent revolves around money, material things, and technological advancements – making income generation the top priority of the 21st century parent.

Citizens of this modern world continuously find themselves in a tug of war between modernity and their cultural identities and traditional values. At the very least, these modern changes are pushing both rural constituents and urbanites into a whirlpool of technological advancements, making the population a busy, preoccupied, and overwhelmed people.

The reality is that most parents now dedicate a greater part of their time generating income or thinking about how to make money to put food on the table for their households. As a result, parents are increasingly spending less quality time with their children and therefore, cannot take care of their developmental and emotional needs. Yet, parents have a fundamental responsibility to their children: to groom them and lay a foundation of values, that in turn, the children can pass on to the next generation when they too become parents.

Unfortunately, money cannot solve all social problems. Not everything is a supply and demand problem, nor can all problems be solved through government intervention programmes. Some social ills such as teenage pregnancies, workplace sexual harassment, just to mention a few, could be a symptom of the degeneration of social structures, particularly, the role of the household unit in modelling good behaviour, mainly among the youth.

The National Development Strategy (NDS) makes it clear that the imagined future for Eswatini should include development elements that raise the standard of cultural awareness as well as develop in a manner that infuses dynamism in the country’s cultural practices.

The NDS emphasises the need to maintain and encourage traditional institutional structures that sensitise agents of socialisation to influence attitudes and behaviour patterns that promote or reinforce ‘good’ traditional values for dealing with societal problems as Emaswati.

Note that this is not an attack on modernity or development. Societies definitely can and should be transformed, as modernity does not necessarily mean a total abandonment of traditional values and a loss of a people’s moral compass. This piece is just a simple nudge to Emaswati, who should perhaps raise their self-consciousness on who they are becoming as a people in the development process so that the country’s traditional institutions and values can be infused into the complex amalgam called ‘modernity/development’.

So what do teenage pregnancies mean for Eswatini’s development?

Teenage pregnancies are a costly impediment to the country’s social and economic development. Generally, teenagers who engage in sexual activities face a host of negative outcomes that can have lasting physical, emotional, social, and economic impacts on their lives, most particularly for teenage girls and young women.

The major issue is that teenage pregnancies contribute to the loss of productive human capital in Eswatini. It also perpetuates issues of poverty and hopelessness among children born to teenage mothers. About one-fifth of school dropouts in Eswatini are attributable to teenage pregnancy.

This is by no means an attempt to imply that when a teenager falls pregnant or being born to a teenage mother equates to doom and gloom. There are successful individuals born to teenage mothers; however, such children more often than not face strife during their developmental stages, which limits their chances of becoming fully productive citizens in society and the economy at large.

Tsoaledi Thobejane (2017) finds that lack of communication between parents and their children exacerbates teenage pregnancies. Similarly, Yakubu and Salisu (2018) find that lack of parental counselling/guidance and parental neglect are some of the key determinants of adolescent pregnancy in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, the Heritage Foundation’s social science research finds that family structure contributes to how teenagers engage in sexual activity. One study highlights that adolescents raised in families where the parent figure is fully present in the child’s life are less likely to engage in sexual activity.

In short, these research findings highlight the significant role of the household in solving family and relationship issues such as teenage pregnancies. Indeed, the parent should be the first source of intervention in protecting a girl-child from falling into the teenage pregnancy trap.

What it means for Eswatini is that if the substance of relationships between parents and their children continues to disintegrate, and if parents are too busy to be present in their children’s lives, the children too will be busy making babies the country does not need. No amount of money invested in education or health programming can curb teenage pregnancies and the other social problems facing Eswatini if parents do not honour their obligations as carers.

It has become a norm for parents to rely on government and non-governmental institutions to ‘raise’ their children. Most of the parents’ responsibilities have been outsourced to schools, day-care centres, as well as government and NGO programmes. Parents expect teachers to teach their children the core values and morals that should ideally be taught at home. Schools, NGOs, and communities can only cement the values and good behaviour that has already been instilled by parents or guardians at the household level.

To ensure that teenagers do not fall pregnant, the country must restore the dignity of the household and its role in instilling and modelling good behaviour among Eswatini’s youth. It simply means households must not shy away from their fundamental role to raise their children, especially through the critical stages of life: infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

In so doing, the country will definitely have more educated girls. Research shows that educated girls tend to marry later in life, they have healthier children, earn more money that they invest back into their families and communities, and they play active roles in leading their communities and countries (King and Winthrop, 2015).

It is a win-win situation for everyone! Parents should therefore reclaim their indigenous role in raising their children so that they can level the playfield with regard to the social and economic opportunities available to Eswatini’s boys and girls from an early age.