Facing pregnancy: Strategies and consequences
Students’ experiences with pregnancy – Two cases
Our presentation of pregnancy cases among students starts by an examination of the narratives of two of our study participants who themselves had given birth not long before the first author interviewed them. In line with the problem statement of the article, we focus on the decision-making process about whether to keep the pregnancy or not, the support structures surrounding them in their handling of the pregnancy, and the implications of the childbirth for their lives and well-being.
Almaz, a student from a rural area in southern Ethiopia, was raped in the campus area early one morning. She says that she was very frightened and confused after the incident, and told a friend about it. The friend took her to the clinic for a check-up where she was told that she was not pregnant:
My period came after a month. It was when I went to a clinic for the second time that I was told I was pregnant; maybe 3 or 4 months pregnant. I was shocked. I could not study. I contacted the gender office. Then I went to my family. I found out that my family was already informed about my pregnancy. I think students from my area had already sent the information to the community. When I went home my mother told me to leave the place immediately even before my father came home. She said the family didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I did not even spend a single night at my parents’ place. A neighbor gave me 200 Birr and I went to my sister’s place and spent the night there. I returned to the [university] campus the next day. My family members have never called me or looked for me until this very day. It was the gender office of the university that provided me with support. When I came back from my home town, the university was closed and there were no students present. The gender office arranged for me to stay in a dormitory, but I was not allowed to use the student cafeteria. There were days when I did not eat. The director of the gender office used to give me some money. Sometimes they asked me to leave the dormitory. I worked with the painters of the maintenance office for 20 days and was given some money. I was so depressed. I didn’t want to live. I wanted to die. I decided to take my life. They asked me if my family would call me to take me, but I said no. They even collected money for transport but I refused to take it, because I have nowhere to go. My parents clearly told me that they refused to accept me.
Then the gender office arranged for me to go to a “safe home” for victims of gender-based violence. It was a good place. There I gave birth to a baby girl. The child is now at an orphanage [a different place than the “safe home”]. She will stay there until I graduate. It is a temporary place for her to stay. I left the safe home 14 days after I gave birth. Recently I went to the orphanage to see the child. It is only one month and some days since I gave birth. I don’t know how I can take my child and raise her. What [job] will I get after graduation? I have no interest in raising her… I am a protestant. I used to go to church but not anymore. My mother has not yet called me. I know they have heard that I gave birth. They don’t know I was raped. They thought I got pregnant willingly. In our place, unwanted pregnancy is considered a taboo. I don’t want to go back to my parents.
Selam is a woman born and raised in Addis Ababa. The circumstances surrounding her getting pregnant are less clear than in the case of Almaz. Her narrative indicates that, although she knew the father of the child from before and sometimes refers to him as her “boyfriend”, the intercourse that led to the pregnancy was not voluntary.
There was a man who wanted to be with me but I was not ready. He used to push me to have a relationship with him. The guy used to follow me since I was in high school. He said he was in love with me and he forced me to have sex. I didn’t know I was pregnant. …... Two months after I got pregnant, I told the man about my situation and he said I should have an abortion. I refused because I thought I may not get a chance to be pregnant and have a child later on in life. Though not planned, I wanted to keep the child that God gave me. I asked God to make everything alright.
As I said earlier, when I told my boyfriend about the pregnancy, he told me to abort it. I said I would never do that. I had some information on fistula and other health problems related to abortion. I had no information about how to solve problems related to pregnancy. Since I had difficulties while growing up and later in life, I was strong. My Orthodox religion didn’t allow me to abort. I also said to myself, if I abort, I will not get the eternal life after the life of this world. It is a sin to kill a life that hasn't got the chance to see this world. My religion supported me to keep the child. I have seen the world, but the child has not seen it and he or she has a right to do so. I believe I should not hurt others. I have seen so many challenges in life. So I said I should not hurt an innocent child.
I also had another reason to keep my child. I have no family and I was lonely, so I wanted the child to fill this gap in my life. I said I have to have a child to support me and encourage me. I believed I could overcome the challenge.
Selam speaks about the financial challenges that she faced, but also explains that she got some help. Among other things, she was entitled to free medical care from the government because of her poverty status. Her relationship with her birth family is complicated; she suspects that she was adopted into the family and that is why she does not feel well-treated by or close to any of the family members. However, when she informed the family about the pregnancy, her father got involved, and he tried to sort out the situation:
God helped me a lot and I became strong. I told my sisters, those who grew up with me, about my challenges. I then talked to my father. We were not communicating before that. I showed him my first semester grade [transcript]. He said it was good. Then I told him about the pregnancy. He said it was ok. He asked, “What does your boyfriend think about the pregnancy?”. My father said that if my boyfriend wants me to abort, he would take him to court. “But if he wants to keep the child, then we will formalize it so you would get married” he said. I was happy with my father’s reactions and felt that God listened to my prayer. I was glad that my father was ok with the pregnancy. I convinced my boyfriend that my family would support me, but he did not want to marry me. I did not tell this to my parents. I just told my boyfriend that they expect us to get married.
Selam eventually married her boyfriend, and they started to live together with his parents, but her difficult situation was by no means resolved through the marriage:
My husband does not like the child. He asked me to throw her away. He did not like her from the first day of her life. From day one of our marriage, he mistreated me. He was afraid of my family, that was why he agreed to live with me. But he treated me so badly… He always blamed me for giving birth to the child. He says, “It is you who brought this problem to us”. He even told me many times to throw our baby away. He does not even realize that what he said could hurt my feelings badly.
Selam tells about the challenges she faced when she tried to continue her education. Having nowhere to place the child and also meeting resistance from the university management regarding re-entry to her studies, her prospects were not good. However, she has got some support from an NGO to start a small business and hopes this will enable her to earn some money. She does worry a lot about her situation, though:
My baby is suffering. I am breastfeeding her, but I am not sure what will happen when she starts to eat food. What will she eat? I am stressed. I even think of giving her to an NGO. I don’t want my baby to suffer. My husband said I should give her away to an NGO. But I don’t regret giving birth to her.
Selam refers to herself as a strong woman, and shows pride in the decision she made to keep the child, although she doubts that others will have the same strength as her.
I was asking myself what could happen to other women if they have a similar experience. Will they have the perseverance like me? Will they lose hope easily? I would imagine not all women fight persistently and I can see how much they would suffer.
Support structures for pregnant girls – Where are they?
Almaz and Selam share many similar experiences; the violence/pressure that led to the pregnancy, the fear and anxiety following the realization of their circumstances and the fear of their future prospects. Neither of them discusses in detail the option of abortion, but from their narratives we get to know what led them to keep their pregnancies. From here their stories emerge as different: While Almaz did not know that she was pregnant until it was too late to have an abortion, and she had no option than to continue the pregnancy and give birth, Selam made a conscious choice to keep the child based on her faith and on her fear of the medical injuries an abortion could cause. Selam moreover felt that she wanted a child to fill the “family gap” in her life.
Both Almaz and Selam report severe implications of their pregnancies and of having a child for their (future) lives. What support structures emerge as important in their narratives? Who helped them in their difficult situation? Almaz identifies the gender office as her most important source of support; they helped her find a place to sleep and arranged for her to give birth in a shelter. However, the support received was not regular but rather of an informal nature: The director of the office personally gave her money and arranged for her to have a temporary job. Although vital, this support has clearly not been sufficient to ensure her well-being and health. Selam does not talk about any support from university offices at all but she mentions free medical care from the government as an appreciated help, and also some support from an NGO to help her establish a business.
The lack of formal support structures for women who become pregnant was confirmed by many of the key informants at the university, who gave examples of girls they have personally assisted in similar situations:
She was 4 months pregnant when she came to the university. She gave birth during the first semester. After she gave birth, students rented a house for her and I was informed about her case. The house was very small at ..[location]. The university did not have a system to support such students, so I had to raise money from friends and colleagues…. I took bottles of water. I also took some clothes from my house and went to visit the student. The student had literally nothing in that house. She was holding the child and the child was without any clothes. She had no food or anything. (Key Informant 5, AAU)
Based on such experiences, the need to improve and formalize assistance for such students was recognized:
We need to institutionalize all the support. You cannot support everyone from your own pocket. The university must be student focused. The solution should be systemic. I cannot help everyone. I may not have anything to give... I cannot help everyone and if I try to do that, I am sure I will burn out. (Key informant 5, Addis Ababa)
What about family support? Returning to the cases of Selam and Almaz, their situations show some similarities as neither of them received any significant material support from natal kin; Almaz has been completely rejected by her family and is in a destitute situation. Her daughter has been placed in an orphanage and it is uncertain whether Almaz will ever be able to raise her. Selam has an irregular relationship with her natal family, but they do not support her financially or practically in terms of taking care of the child. She is living with the family of the child’s father, but still faces severe difficulties, including economically. The question of leaving the child with an NGO has been raised although, so far, she has done nothing to make this happen.
When it comes to assistance from the child’s father, this is of course irrelevant in Almaz’s case, but even Selam, who married the father of her child, is not supported by him, either financially or emotionally. According to other students, her case is not the only one; support from male partners seems to be the exception rather than the rule when a girl finds herself pregnant. As voiced by a male Addis-based student:
If a woman gets pregnant, the man would deny he is responsible for the pregnancy and would leave the woman. Her parents would kick her out of their house. What would she do? If the child is born, she would suffer. How could she raise the child? (Interviewee 3, male, AAU,)
Another student confirmed the lack of male involvement in pregnancy cases in general, but mentioned the rare possibility of the man’s family helping out, provided that he is seriously involved with the girl:
The male student would look for a solution if he loves his girlfriend but this is rare. Usually the men ignore the girl after she gets pregnant. It would be the girl’s responsibility. However, if he loves her, he would take her to his family (Interviewee 10, male, AAU)
Shame as a socio-cultural force in the lives of young women
The narratives of Selam and Almaz exemplify the hardships that young Ethiopian women who experience mistimed and socially unacceptable pregnancy are likely to face. Of the two, Almaz seems to have faced the greatest loss, being abandoned by her family because of the shame that she imposed upon them. Although her case may be an extreme one, the fear of parents’ reactions is recognized by many of our study participants as the key factor in making abortion stand out as the best and most likely option a female student would choose should an unwanted pregnancy occur. The reason given is precisely what caused Almaz’s parents to react in the way that they did: A daughter’s pre-marital pregnancy is shameful and may ruin family pride and reputation.
Many students, both male and female, pointed out how differently an unwanted pregnancy would strike gender-wise:
The girl’s family would be more upset than the boy’s family. It is about their pride. It is about their status. When their daughter gets married without any children [i.e. before having a child], they would be happy (Interviewee 10, male AAU).
A few spoke about the existence of a certain pressure from male partners to make their girlfriend choose the abortion alterative in case of pregnancy, similarly to what we saw in Selam’s case. More than pressure from partners, students voiced the fear of disappointing parents, who have invested so much in securing them a good education, as a main reason for choosing an abortion. This fear was often contrasted with the role played by religion in the decision-making process:
As one female student said:
When she [the university student] gets pregnant, she would have a moral dilemma. The family has high expectations. She would not consider her religion, but makes a decision to abort in order protect the name of her family. Before religion, you give priority to your pride. As for religion, you ask God’s forgiveness later. (Interviewee 8, female, AAU)
A male student confirmed this view, stressing the role of both community and family as more important than for a girl’s decision that her religious believes:
Religion has a big influence. Since a student thinks about her eternal life, it has influence. But I think the influence of the community and parents will win, they have more influence than religion. Due to this reason, a female student will abort if she gets pregnant (Interviewee 20, male AAU)
Another female student, who described herself as a very religious person, spoke warmly about her father and everything that he had done for her, revealing that she would never be able to let him down and come home pregnant:
As for me, I don’t talk to my father about sexual issues. He loves me. I know it is a big sin to have an abortion, but still I would go for it. I should consider what is best for my family. My father did not get the kind of education I have. He worked hard his whole life. He was a driver in the desert. So I don’t want to get pregnant and disappoint him. I cannot let him down. (Interviewee 2, female, AAU)
The preferred solution for a student who becomes pregnant would be, according to our study participants, to have the abortion carried out in secret and without the parents knowing anything about it. However, in our many interviews with students and staff we have encountered a number of pregnancy cases where the young women in question have remained silent about their condition, but where they have not acted to have an abortion. The girls encountered in many of these narratives appear to be overwhelmed by feelings which not only keep them silent but also unable to seek a solution:
A student in our college had a boyfriend who was a graduating student. She was a student at the English department. Her boyfriend had asked her to have a child with him before he graduated and left the university. She became pregnant but he left the campus and disappeared. The student tried to hide the pregnancy by not eating food and wearing tight clothes. She came to my office many times but was not able to tell me that she was pregnant. She is from […rural area in one of the regions] and was not able to speak to me in Amharic. She was only able to say, 'there is a problem' but was unable to describe what the problem was. She did not tell her friends that she was pregnant either as she was very ashamed. Finally, she collapsed in her dormitory. Her friends took her to a hospital and that was when her case was disclosed. (Key Informant 7, AAU)
A key informant at Jimma University shared a similar story. The student in question came to see our key informant in her capacity as health worker for the alleged reason of having parasites. The health worker suspected that it was more than parasites, and ordered an additional examination. The test result showed that, rather than parasites she had a positive pregnancy test:
The student couldn’t accept that she was pregnant. She said she was a virgin. I asked her if she had had sex with her boyfriend even just once but she said no. I also asked if she wore a man’s trouser and was in contact with sperm. Finally, she said she would take me to court for saying that she was pregnant, and left the room. It has been a month and half since this happened and she didn’t show up to see me again. One day, I met her friend here at the clinic, and the friend told me the student was pregnant. (Key informant 3, Jimma University).
Yet another case, told to us by a student, speaks about complete secrecy and denial:
There was a student who was pregnant. We asked her about her pregnancy but she denied she was pregnant. She did not tell anyone. But finally she entered her labor, and we called an ambulance and she gave birth. We visited her at the hospital and we collected money and gave her. Had she told us, we would have looked for a solution. (Interviewee 19, female, AAU).
Dramatic cases of students trying to hide pregnancies were presented to us at Mekelle University; these were cases of students who had left their newborn babies to die:
Shockingly, there was a girl who gave birth in the campus and put her baby in a sewage pipe. Unfortunately the baby was found dead after some days. The girl was taken to court and convicted of murder and sentenced for six years of imprisonment. (Key informant 6, Mekelle University)
A student in this campus [the same campus as above] gave birth at night and put her child on top of a roof. Vultures were trying to snatch the baby. The mother was found in the exam room. It was the university janitors who brought the child to us in the morning. The student said she got pregnant because she was raped on the street.. When students give birth at campus, we do take the babies and give them to organizations for adoption. But the girl I mentioned to you refused to give her baby away. After she got some psychological treatment, she took her baby to her family and she completed her studies this year. (Key informant 5, Mekelle University).
In the introduction we argued that rural students face more challenges than urban students as they are generally less informed about reproductive health matters, and too shy to ask for help when they face a problem. Rural-urban differences are acknowledged by a number of our study participants, key informants and students alike, both pertaining to levels of knowledge, assertiveness and how to deal with unwanted pregnancies. As expressed by a student during the focus group discussion:
Urban students are different from rural ones because they always ask for more information. They are not shy looking for a solution. They openly discuss the issue. Rural students are shy and hence can’t easily find a way out (FGD with female students from the regions, AAU)
An urban student formulated it even more directly:
There were some students who were pregnant. Those from Addis, they have an abortion. The rural ones don’t know where to go for help (Interviewee 7, female, AAU)
However, even if there is a “knowledge gap” between rural and urban students, and rural students tend to be even more powerfully governed by the “culture of silence”, the shame of improper and untimely pregnancy and the fear of disappointing ones family “who has high expectations”, was found to be widespread including among students from urban backgrounds.