GIFTY Nuako has just turned 18, an age when a young person stands on the threshold of life. Instead, her future looks bleak.
Last December, she became pregnant – ‘a mistake,’ she says in a whisper.
She wanted to have an abortion, but her boyfriend’s family refused.
Today, in the back streets of Jamestown, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the Ghanaian capital Accra, the teenager hides her barely rounded stomach under a long skirt and scarves.
‘Now I can’t work, I can’t go back to school. I don’t know what to do any more,’ she said.
Unwanted teenage pregnancy is a major problem in Ghana, simultaneously disempowering girls and entrenching them in poverty, say campaigners.
Activists estimate that nearly one woman in seven in the country becomes pregnant before the age of 19.
And, they say, anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers soared last year after the authorities closed schools to help curb the spread of Covid.
‘Schools were a form of protection,’ said Sarah Lotus Asare, who volunteers with disadvantaged teenage girls.
The schools also gave a sense of purpose to many girls – a crucial compass point that was taken away when education was shut down.
‘Many found themselves idle, without adults to supervise them,’ she said.
Classes reopened in mid-January after a 10-month closure – one of the world’s longest continuous educational shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus crisis.
While teenage sexual activity increased during the school shutdown, the vast majority of girls in Ghana do not have access to birth control.
According to a study by the Ghana Health Service in 2020, only 18.6 percent of sexually active adolescents use contraception.
Often, abortion is not an option either.
In this conservative and religious country, pregnancy termination is illegal except in cases of rape, incest, foetal impairment or danger to the mother’s physical or mental health.
Ghana’s lack of sex education is also a problem, said Esi Prah, a member of the NGO Marie Stopes, which works with the government to develop family planning.
‘The sexuality of young girls is still stigmatised here,’ she said.
‘Ghanaians in general are rather hostile to the idea of sex education. There is a tendency to think that it encourages sex between teenagers, and that the best contraception is abstinence.’
In 2019, an attempt by the government and the United Nations to implement a sex education programme sparked an uproar.
The initiative was attacked by conservative and religious groups, who denounced a ‘satanic’ attempt to promote ‘LGBT values’. The programme was ultimately abandoned.
Poverty is a cause of unwanted teen pregnancies, and unwanted teen pregnancies become a cause of poverty, say campaigners.
Forty-six percent of Ghana’s population was already living below the poverty line in 2017, and last year the pandemic plunged the country into recession.
‘Some parents cannot take care of their children,’ said Theophilus Isaac Quaye, a local elected official in the poor district of Chorkor, south of Accra.
‘And then their daughters are forced to follow men who offered them money. This is not their fault. In order for them to survive, they have to follow these men.’
‘The major reason for girls getting pregnant, it’s poverty,’ Asare said.
School regulations do not formally prohibit young mothers from returning to school after childbirth, but in reality it is very rare for them to return.
Fearing stigma or needing to support themselves, most teenage mothers quit their studies and find work.
Lacking qualifications, they often take up menial jobs and thus find themselves even deeper in the poverty rut.
‘When you get pregnant, you realise the situation becomes worse,’ said Asare.
‘You couldn’t support yourself and now you have another mouth to feed.’