Feature Story

18 January 2008

Tackling the Taboo Topic of Teen Pregnancy in Ghana

Counsellor and young people at the Lady Volta Resource Centre.
Photo: Angela Walker/UNFPA

HO, Ghana  — For Christiane and Yannick Milev, tackling teen pregnancy is a family affair. Together the mother-and-son team run Village Exchange Ghana, a community-based NGO offering support to young mothers and other youth in Ghana’s rural Volta region.

“Teen-age pregnancy programmes used to focus only on girls – what not to do or punishment – no support,” Ms. Milev says. “Men go on with their lives without consequences. Men have all the power and decision-making and don’t ask women what they think or want.”

When she first arrived in Ghana, she instantly felt at home and knew it was where she wanted to start her NGO. But she understood if she wanted to have any kind of impact she needed to work in a less developed, rural region like Volta.

“Ho Township and the surrounding rural area has a high teen-age pregnancy rate that is generally ignored,” says Genevieve Hutchinson, a 29-year-old from London with a Masters Degree in reproductive health who works for the NGO. “The big message is not to have sex, but people are having sex. We focus on teenagers in order to help them make decisions for themselves and help young people become responsible adults.”

Milev’s son, Yannick, 30, was studying development issues in London when he came for a visit. He quickly decided he wanted to stay for a few years to help get Village Exchange Ghana on its feet.

"There’s a lot of stigma. Your family may reject you. You can get kicked out of school. The boy may leave you. You are stuck effectively on your own."
--Genevieve Hutchinson

“To set up my own NGO is a dream opportunity,” he says. “I have an aim to help my mom and our local partners set up a sustainable NGO. It’s my duty. I’m not going to leave half-finished.”

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has provided a $15,000 grant to help make that dream a reality. The money is allowing Village Exchange Ghana to fund its teen pregnancy awareness programme and the Lady Volta Resource Centre, as well as undertake research on the needs of teen-age mothers.

“They are a local NGO, registered in Ghana, that has the access to resources and networks at the field level,” said Makane Kane, UNFPA Representative in Ghana. “A small NGO like this is demonstrating results through innovation. These good experiences can be replicated and scaled up systematically.”

Entrance sign welcoming visitors to the Centre. Photo: Angela Walker/UNFPA

Walking up the main street of Ho, the capital of Volta Region, you’ll see signs for the Lady Volta Resource Centre inviting youth (under 26 years of age) to “Come have a chat!” The centre provides a referral and counselling service for teens and young adults seeking sexual and reproductive health advice on issues ranging from relationships to family planning to sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

“There is a thirst for information that’s not being met,” Hutchinson says. “And this is where we hope the Lady Volta Resource Centre and awareness programmes fit.”

Village Exchange Ghana is also using radio announcements in English to reach local teens and the community at large, but they want to begin giving information in Ewe, the language spoken in the Volta Region.

Male and female counsellors visit local schools to educate young people about their sexuality and to answer their reproductive health questions through games and discussions. They also bust through myths by asking provocative questions such as “Can using a condom make a man weak?” or “If a girl closes her eyes during sex will it prevent pregnancy?”

“Young people can talk to their peers – the communication gap is not there,” says Kane. “I think it is time for young people to be empowered and to find their own solutions rather than just preaching to them. Prevention, advice and counselling are all ways to empower them.”

Kenneth Kpedekpo, 28, has been a counsellor at the centre for 15 months, and he agrees that teenagers feel more comfortable talking about sexual issues that they may be reluctant to address with their parents with another young person. He says that many boys, who make up about a quarter of the centre’s clientele, are prepared to use a condom but have difficulty dealing with the social embarrassment attached.

“There is still stigma attached to buying a condom,” Kenneth says. “Guys feel shy – immediately everybody in the store knows they are prepared to have sex.”

Mother-and-son team, Christiane and Yannick Milev. Photo: Angela Walker/UNFPAMother-and-son team, Christiane and Yannick Milev. Photo: Angela Walker/UNFPA

Sex is not always a straightforward matter in Ghana, as in countries around the world, especially for teen-agers. Yayra Damesi, a 21-year-old researcher and counsellor for the NGO who hopes one day to attend university for her nursing degree, says girls tell her that their boyfriends don’t enjoy sex with condoms so they don’t use them. Others may feel pressured to have sex after accepting gifts from their perspective suitors.

“People are saying they don’t have the money to go to school,” she says. “That leads them to engage in relationships with boys to provide for their needs. In turn, they demand sex from the girls.”

Since abortion is illegal in Ghana, girls may resort to desperate measures such as swallowing glass or inserting metal objects or sticks inside themselves to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Worldwide, girls aged 15 -19 account for one in four unsafe abortions – an estimated 5 million each year.

“There’s a lot of stigma,” Hutchinson says. “Your family may reject you. You can get kicked out of school. The boy may leave you. You are stuck effectively on your own and are considered a burden on the rest of your family, who may expect you to fend for yourself and your baby.”

Village Exchange Ghana envisions helping teen mothers start up small businesses in jewelry, candle making and jam production. All of these can be feasibly produced with local equipment and ingredients and sold throughout the country. Providing childcare is also a priority.

Milev says the Ministries of Health and Education have been very supportive and the community has welcomed them. International volunteers from the UK, Canada, Italy and the US pay for the privilege of working with the NGO. A few full-time international staff, like Ms. Hutchinson and her son, receive only $150 a month for their service. “It’s a real commitment on their part,” Milev says. “They are giving a few years of their life for this project.”

She hopes to see Village Exchange Ghana taken over by her local staff over the next five to six years. She envisions lending a hand only to provide a bit of support in international fundraising.

“I founded a bit of a dream that I wanted to fulfil – to put a programme in place, train them and then send them to do the work,” she says. “Little by little, they will take over the project and run it. … In the long-term, it will be given to the Ghanaians.”

For her son, it’s the community relationships that he’s cultivated that keep him motivated despite local hardship.

“I love Ghanaians; I love this country; I love being here,” he says. “Where else can I work that I have this amazing contact with the community and kids. It’s amazing to see.”

— Angela Walker