By Akanimo Sampson
Fifteen-year-old Juliana (not real name) mother of a baby boy says if she had had the support of her family, “I wouldn’t have ended up where I am now,” she said. She did not get much a childhood.
Born into a poor family in a remote Moldovan village, she started working at an early age. “I worked at a poultry plant,” she recently recounted to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “I felt like I was 15 because of my responsibilities and hard work, although I was only 10.”
She grew up without strong parental support. Her parents were often away working, leaving her without their guidance, especially on issues related to puberty and relationships. In school, she received limited information about healthy behaviours.
At age 15, she found herself pregnant. She said she had been afraid to negotiate safe sex with her boyfriend, who was four years older. Her fears were well-founded: He sometimes lashed out violently against her.
“This wasn’t my actual choice. I dreamed about something else”, she said, adding, “I dreamed about continuing my education, about being independent.” Today, she is the mother of a young son, whom she loves dearly. However, she wishes things had happened differently.
“I did want to have a child, but later, when I would have been able to provide for my baby. I never thought I’d become a mother at 15.”
Girls like Juliana face a cascade of challenges: Poor girls are much more likely than their wealthier peers to become pregnant. Often, girls who become pregnant drop out of school, and they face worse economic outcomes.
Pregnancy in adolescence can also have more risks. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19. In at least one way, Juliana was fortunate: she was able to complete secondary school unlike many other teenage mothers.
But, today, at age 17, she still feels as though her prospects have narrowed. She does not have a job. She lives in her boyfriend’s home, doing chores and caring for his ailing father. She still endures violence at the hands of her partner.
When girls have access to the right information and support, their lives often turn out very differently. On paper, Ana-Maria Odobescu has a lot in common with Juliana: Both are 17 and from central Moldova. Like Juliana, Ana-Maria was a devoted student with many household responsibilities.
But Ana-Maria had the guidance of her family and, crucially, access to information about her health and rights. She participated in the UNFPA-supported Y-PEER programme, a youth network through which young people learn about their bodies, health and human rights. They also educate one another through peer-to-peer learning.
Ana-Maria has become a leader in her community. Every weekend, she visits community centres in neighbouring districts to speak to other young people about engaging in healthy behaviours and standing up for their rights.
“Even if preparing for the weekend trainings is time-consuming and I end up going to bed late every day, my batteries are fully charged because I do what I enjoy doing and I feel that I grow”, she said. She wants all girls to have the same opportunities. “I urge all young women to trust themselves and to build their future without caring about stereotypes and other barriers.”
“These girls’ dreams and potential are similar, but because of their circumstances, their lives are different,” said Natalia Plugaru, UNFPA’s Assistant Representative in Moldova.
“We want for all girls and women to live a dignified and abuse-free life and have children when they are ready. For this, we should invest in their education and health from an early age and support their choices,” she added.
UNFPA works with the government and local authorities to develop comprehensive sexuality education courses, and to implement a national strategy to combat gender-based violence. In 2018, UNFPA reached more than 17,000 young people in Moldova through school programmes, peer-to-peer information sessions and out-of-school educational activities.
To support Juliana, UNFPA also referred her to a local youth-friendly health centre, where she can access a wide range of services, including counselling, medical care and free family planning.
Today, she is looking ahead, hoping to give her son a better future. “My greatest dream is to master a trade and be able to provide for myself and for my son,” she said.