Please note that this story contains upsetting references to sexual violence against girls.
It was getting close to dinnertime. Like usual, Lucy went outside to collect firewood. She followed a circuitous trail of branches in the dirt and was led far away from her house, deeper into the darkness of the small village in eastern Kenya. She didn’t realize her stepfather would be waiting for her, with the promise of food, knowing she was in the grip of hunger.
He lured Lucy behind the bushes and sexually assaulted her. She says she doesn’t remember anything after he knocked her to the ground. “I pretend it never happened,” she says.
If Lucy became pregnant after that night, the law in Kenya says that girls and women can qualify for safe abortion services if the pregnancy poses a danger to her life, or has resulted from a rape, assault or incest.
Lucy would be protected in Kenya. In Texas, today, she would be forced to become a parent.
Texas’ new law bans abortion from as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Most girls and women don’t realize they’re pregnant until well after the six-week point. This abortion ban in Texas doesn’t make exceptions for cases of rape or incest. And under the law, private citizens can sue anyone who helps someone receive an abortion.
These nightmarish restrictions that target girls don’t end at our own country’s borders. There is a war against girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health rights across the whole world.
Let’s consider El Salvador, one of the most dangerous places to be a girl. If you’re a girl who becomes pregnant after being raped, and you seek abortion services, you can face up to 40 years in prison. Even girls who suffer miscarriages or stillbirths can be prosecuted for murder because the country’s abortion ban is so broadly enforced. If you’re a family member who supports a woman in getting an abortion? You can be sentenced to jail for up to five years. And it’s not just El Salvador. Girls and women can face jail time for an abortion in other countries, like the Philippines, Brazil, Malta and Andorra. Specifically in the Philippines and Malta, abortion is illegal with no exceptions.
No matter the country or state, legal restrictions barring abortion services disproportionately affect girls from low-income families. Being from a low-income family means you don’t have the option to travel for an abortion. You might not have a working car. You may not be able to afford airfare, or to take time off of work. You might not have a job that offers paid leave. And, when a girl or woman is forced to give birth, the odds that she and her child will live below the federal poverty line quadruples. Girls and women being denied their right to health care is only perpetuating the cycle of generational poverty and putting girls at an even greater disadvantage.
School becomes out of the question for many girls who become pregnant at a young age. If not forced by their parents, they may have to make the difficult decision on their own to drop out of school and get a full-time job to pay for their child’s needs. But even when girls can afford to continue their education while pregnant, they might face another set of barriers that are too high to cross.
In 2018, five girls in Tanzania were arrested — just for going to school while pregnant. According to the late President Magufuli, the ban against pregnant girls and teenage mothers is in place to prevent other girls from being encouraged to have sex. Mandatory pregnancy tests are also common in many schools in Tanzania, and thousands of girls have been expelled as a result of them. Tanzania has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world. Almost one-third of adolescent girls ages 15-19 are pregnant in the country. And all of them are at risk of permanently losing their opportunity for education.
Though many other governments are trending toward supporting adolescent mothers in schools, in some countries, there’s a lack of actual implementation of the laws and policies. And even if the policies are enforced, many girls still opt to drop out of school due to severe stigmatization.
Aline, age 18 from Rwanda, lived with her family before she became pregnant. But once they found out, she was thrown out of her home. Now, she lives alone with her baby.
“In Rwanda, getting pregnant often means the end of education and the beginning of a lifelong journey of poverty for many girls,” Aline says. “It also means isolation and exclusion from community, family and school, as many of us are viewed as a disgrace.”
Harmful gender norms and unequal power dynamics in Rwanda lead to many girls being forced into having unprotected sex through emotional manipulation, threats or physical force. “I was rejected and regularly referred to as shameful by my family,” Aline says. “They did not want to understand why this had happened.”
How has the pandemic affected all of this? There has been a major impact on the delivery of sexual and reproductive health care since the start of COVID-19, especially given that many girls receive their care at school, and those schools have been shut down.
In Mozambique — one of the few countries in Africa that includes the distribution of contraceptives as part of a state-sponsored sex education for young people — supplies for girls have been disrupted because of the pandemic. Already overstretched and poorly resourced facilities are suffering shortages of contraceptives and medication to safely prevent pregnancy. And without access to health care facilities because of COVID-19, girls’ very lives are at risk — pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19.
“For a few months, we had four girls who could not benefit from safe abortion services,” says Fausia, a maternal and child health nurse in Mozambique. “Some girls had to use alternative methods instead of implants and condoms.”
The pandemic, legal restrictions and ever-present gender biases are robbing girls of their autonomy. But girls themselves around the world are fighting for their rights — and the fight won’t end until pregnancy becomes a choice, not a requirement.
In Sierra Leone, where a ban on pregnant girls in school was only recently lifted, a young woman named Sewanatu is working with Plan to tackle teenage pregnancy and sexual violence against girls. She intends to become a doctor so that she can help ensure that victims and survivors of sexual violence get justice.
“I want to help girls believe in themselves and to see that there are a lot of opportunities out there for them,” Sewanatu says. “I want them to know that they are smart, they are strong, they are intelligent and they are capable of doing anything that boys can do. I want them to believe in themselves and keep learning.”
In Columbia, a girl named Yasmira is working with Plan to campaign against sexual violence and against girls. “Girls and women are not taken seriously here,” she says. “They are laughed at and abused for coming forward with their stories. My goal is to become a lawyer and defend women who have survived sexual abuse.”
“As women, we have to do what we can to empower each other,” Yasmira continues. “Not in order to take power away from men — that is not the aim. But to create a more equal and just world where both men and women are equal.”
Erika, from the indigenous region of Chimborazo in Ecuador, is another Plan advocate working to help young people learn about sexual health and reproductive rights. In 2018, she told Plan about how a lack of access to education has affected her community.
“Teenage pregnancy is really common here,” Erika says. “A friend of mine got pregnant when she was 14 years old. Her parents’ first reaction was to beat her. The baby’s father, who was 17, didn’t want to hear about it. His parents took his side, saying it was her fault she got pregnant.”
“In my class at school, most girls didn’t receive any sex education,” Erika says. “So they’d get pregnant at 13 or 14 and have to leave school because boys would make fun of them for being pregnant. These girls would get depressed because of the way they were treated. Often, they ended up not wanting their babies … Information about access to contraception is so important … We’ve worked a lot on self-esteem [through Plan’s advocacy project] and now we are starting to see more young people determined to achieve their ambitions.”
And in Texas, girls like Paxton Smith are bravely using their voices to protect their futures.
We may not be able to change the stories of the millions of girls and women who have been forced into pregnancy. We may not be able to change the violence that has been experienced by girls like Lucy in Kenya. What we can do is keep advocating until every girl receives protection, education and the freedom to choose when — or if — she wants to become a mother. Every girl deserves that choice.
Read Plan International USA’s statement on the Supreme Court inaction that allowed Texas’ controversial abortion law to take effect on September 1.
Evelyn and Lucy’s names have been changed to protect their identities.