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“Every youth’s right to have a child when they’re ready”: Lesotho grapples with high rates of teen pregnancy

As Lesotho steps up its efforts to curb rates of teen pregnancy, young mothers warn against dumping the responsibility for a complex social and health issue on girls alone.

23 August 2023 by Pascalinah Kabi

Peer Educators pose for a picture with UNESCO official Matsooana Sekokotoane with radios used to tune into to the Let’s Talk! Radio drama in their villages. Credit Poloko Mokhele


Five young mothers sit around a table at the Good Shepherd Centre for Teenage Mothers in Berea district, Lesotho, one mid-August day.

“The minute a girl starts her menstrual periods, she will be told not to play with boys. Nothing is said about the changes in her body and how she can go about adapting to those changes.”

– Lipuo Moleko

Eighteen-year-old Lipuo Moleko is the youngest. With her are Boitumelo Mosakeng, 21, Puleng Moleko, 22, Mpho Sebata, 23, and Keneuoe Ramohanoe, 26. Moleko opens the conversation, explaining how she ended up living here – the Centre provides a safe and supportive landing place for young mothers learning to care for themselves and their children.

Young mother Keneuoe Ramohanoe, currently studying fashion design at Shepherd Centre for Teenage Mothers, proudly showcases a skirt she made. Credit Pascalinah Kabi

She fell pregnant two years ago, Moleko says, after her friends encouraged her to go out with an “older, cute and wealthy man” who works for the government.

Her friends advised her to terminate the pregnancy, but “a senior student told me she aborted her pregnancy and that abortion is the most lonely, painful experience ever. I did not abort,” Moleko recounts.

Moleko believes one of the major causes for high teenage pregnancy is that many families in Lesotho still associate the start of a girl’s menstrual periods with sex. 

“The minute a girl starts her menstrual periods, she will be told not to play with boys. Nothing is said about the changes in her body and how she can go about adapting to those changes. Our parents’ top priority is “don’t have sex with boys”. Parents need to stop associating menstruation with sex, leaving the responsibility of preventing pregnancy on girls alone,” Moleko says.

Staff member Sister Constance Mosakeng said the Centre is currently home to 29 young mothers and their babies. In most cases, she says, they’ve been discriminated against by their communities.

High rates of teenage pregnancy remain a challenge across Lesotho. Between 2003 and 2018, 94 girls out of every 1,000 in the age group 15–19 gave birth, according to UNFPA.

In June this year, at the launch of a radio drama called Let’s Talk! Pregnancy at the Right Time, UNESCO National Programme Officer Lineo ‘Malesaoana Molapo told a gathering that adolescent girls who fall pregnant mostly hail from rural areas and low socio-economic status.

To help ease the high rate of teen pregnancy, UNESCO is supporting Lesotho in developing and implementing a school health and nutrition policy, which includes helping young people access sexual and reproductive health services from health facilities, Molapo said.

“Boys and older males in Lesotho can play a crucial role in curbing teenage pregnancy by actively engaging in various initiatives that include challenging traditional gender norms that perpetuate unequal power dynamics between genders.”

– Harry Nkhetse, Life Coach

“During the [radio] drama, the host will bring in experts, and young people will be allowed to deliberate on the issues, and say how best we can deal with challenges differently and not fall pregnant,” Molapo said.

Life Coach Harry Nkhetse told VaccinesWork that teenage pregnancy is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to address it effectively. He echoes teen mum Moleko’s point – that responsibility for not becoming pregnant cannot be heaped exclusively onto girls’ shoulders.

“Boys and older males in Lesotho can play a crucial role in curbing teenage pregnancy by actively engaging in various initiatives that include challenging traditional gender norms that perpetuate unequal power dynamics between genders. They can actively promote gender equality and respect for women and girls, both within their own relationships and in their communities,” Nkhetse said.

Nkhetse says he established Letlotlo Boy-Child Programme after realising that “all developmental programmes” focused on a girl child.

“In our view, boys are equally vulnerable. Our programme provides boys with comprehensive information and knowledge about this issue. We hope that this can contribute to reducing the rate of early pregnancies, promoting gender equality, and fostering responsible behaviour among boys,” he said.

Meanwhile, Good Shepherd Centre resident Keneuoe Ramohanoe believes Roman Catholic Church health facilities should consider offering contraceptives, especially to young girls desperate to prevent early and unintended pregnancies.

“Some of the challenges confronting young girls in Lesotho is lack of access to contraceptives. In most cases, Catholic Church clinics are closest to us,” Ramohanoe said.

Ministry of Health Adolescent Health Program Manager ‘Mathato Nkuatsana said most pregnant girls present to health facilities very late in their pregnancies because of fear of being judged by older women.

For her part, 22-year-old Puleng Tlali says every “concoction” she drank in attempt to terminate her pregnancy four years ago failed. “Instead I gave birth to a healthy son, Naleli. I am lucky to have a solid support system from my family,” Tlali said.

In May 2022, UNFPA reported that 36% of girls aged 10–14 presented to one hospital with incomplete abortions.

In a phone interview with VaccinesWork, Ministry of Health Adolescent Health Program Manager ‘Mathato Nkuatsana said most pregnant girls present to health facilities very late in their pregnancies because of fear of being judged by older women.

“We have peer educators designated in communities. They are trained to talk to the youth about comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and encourage pregnant girls to present themselves to clinics for monitoring because they are high risk.”

Mantsopa Institute, a Maseru-based NGO, is responsible for producing the Let’s Talk! Pregnancy at the Right Time radio drama. The organisation has also roped in social media influencers in the fight against teenage pregnancy.

“It is every youth’s right to have a child when they are ready, financially stable and feel a need to have a child.”

– Boity Sefali, influencer

Influencer Boity Sefali’s July 2023 video on teenage pregnancy went viral. In the video, Sefali says: “I am not going to be forced by the community or my boyfriend to have a child when I am not ready, because after that, I will be the one left to deal with depression and a crying baby at night, all on my own. It is every youth’s right to have a child when they are ready, financially stable and feel a need to have a child.”

Lesotho deputy Speaker of Parliament Ts’epang Tsita-Mosena encourages young mothers to never allow teenage pregnancy to be the end of their careers. Credit Poloko Mokhele

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Tšepang Tšita-Mosena encourages young people to take advantage of the education offered by the radio drama, because it will empower them with information to tackle challenges facing them.

“Let us use this talk show to end teenage pregnancy. If your counterpart is going through challenges, do not laugh at them, do not gossip about them, do not stigmatise them. Let’s support them, let us talk about this programme and make it popular as our safety space,” she said.

This story was produced and first published by the VaccinesWork.

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