BILLY NTAOTE and SECHABA MOKHETHI
Schools in rural communities are faced with high drop-outs as a result of early child marriage or teenage pregnancy, both sad reality that perpetuates the circle of poverty and shutter dreams of many girls.
For Nthatuoa*, falling pregnant in her teenage was the last thing on her mind but when it happened the only option was to elope to avoid being the laughing stock of her village.
When Nthatuoa fled Boribeng, Leribe, her pregnancy had not even started to show, but the thought alone clouded her judgement and she abandoned dreams of being a nurse one day and decided to get married.
Coincidentally for her, being a top student at the school made her absence from Boribeng High School noticed quickly and the Principal had to act fast with parents.
A local company known for its corporate social responsibility programmes came to the rescue to salvage the situation and help the expecting teenager connected to a shelter in Maseru, Beautiful Dreams Society.
But, Nthatuoa, the last born and tenth child to ‘Manthatuoa and Ranthatuoa had this to say when narrating how she came to flee from school to a marriage in fear of humiliation in an interview with MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism.
“When I discovered that my boyfriend had impregnated me, I was scared. Then I told him and decided to call his home in Thaba-Tseka to tell them the news, but his mother was not at home.
“When going to my boyfriend’s home, I did not know the place, all I had were directions to his home village only.
“All I had was a phone to connect me to his sister on the other end of the line to give me directions to get to his home.
“When I left for his home, after discovering my pregnancy, I was just two months late and I was still going to school.
“But my fears were that I am pregnant and ended dodging school. what worried me further was that I was living with both my parents and my brothers.
“I feared to tell my family that I was pregnant. I feared to share this news with them when I was still at my home.
“I only managed to speak to them when I was in Thaba-Tseka and not in school. Even so, I only informed them because they were worried about my whereabouts,” she said.
Nthatuoa said after discovering she was pregnant she convinced her boyfriend he must make plans to marry her as she was being kicked out of her home by her angry parents. But she had not told them she was pregnant.
“My unsuspecting boyfriend felt he needed to man-up and take control of the situation and decided he will marry me and I should go to his home in Thaba-Tseka.
“He called his sister informing her that I am being expelled from my home and needed shelter urgently and her sister agreed to welcome me into their home. That’s how I ended travelling to Thaba-Tseka,” said Nthatuoa.
“Only his sister was at home. Then we decided that I should go to his home in Thaba-Tseka and elope, he was to follow me later on.
“I took a bus to his home in Thaba-Tseka. When I arrived there, his sister was good to me.
“But the only shocking thing was that I was not allowed to go outside as my pregnancy was still a secret and she did not want her grandmother to discover my presence at her home,” said Nthatuoa.
Commenting on soaring cases of child marriages, Beautiful Dreams Society Human Trafficking Director Rethabile Mahopolo said, “…at some rural places in Lesotho, you get to find 12-year-olds in labour and because of our culture, they take that to be an achievement. We are just recycling poverty by child marriages”.
But, for Boribeng High School’s acting Deputy Principal Leburu Lebitsa, his school continues to suffer bad year-end examination results as a result of swelling statistics of early child marriage and teenage pregnancy.
“One is doing her Form E and is currently awaiting her exams at home due to pregnancy.
“Another who was doing Form A said she got married and left. Another one was doing her Form B, has also gotten married and left.
“We currently have two students that we believe fell victims of child marriage, one is doing Form B and another in her Form D. All these cases came up in 2018 alone,” Lebitsa said.
According to Lebitsa, when a student is pregnant, they invite parents to attend with her so that they can provide necessary care if there is an emergency.
However, he said many of the students opt to stay home, with those awaiting external exams coming only when they are supposed to write.
From his observation, Lebitsa said early child marriage and rampant pregnancies at an early age in their area are exacerbated by poverty as most of the families of students attending Boribeng are not well off.
He said they tend to get into sexual activities in exchange for money to survive but end up in early child marriages.
On Nthatuoa’s case, Lebitsa said “She was doing her Form D and impregnated by a boy doing his Form A. The boy was also her temporary neighbour at home as he was staying with his relatives but originally coming from Thaba-Tseka district. They were both below age 18 when they conceived a baby and decided to get married on their own”.
Lebitsa said the school received a report that she is pregnant and has gone to the boy’s home in Thaba-Tseka by herself while the latter was still studying until he later dropped out and vanished.
“We handed her case to one of our sponsors and they worked on it until ‘Masechaba was moved to another school in Maseru in collaboration with the Beautiful Dreams Society.
“She had also received a White Blazer award as the school’s top performer when she was doing her Form C,” he said.
Lebitsa said the school leadership is saddened that “issues of early pregnancy and child marriage mostly affect the top performers, brilliant pupils we are banking on for good results and this, in turn, lowers our rankings”.
The Centre heard how the teenagers secret did not last for long as Nthatuoa received a phone call from her boyfriend a few days later informing her “he was in trouble in Leribe.
“He told me that I should return back to my home as he was now being threatened with arrest”.
Nthatuoa said she was then called to return home by her parents and a bus fare was paid for her to return home in Leribe.
Nthatuoa said her brothers were angry at her boyfriend and demanded their sister back in Leribe.
She recalls being mocked by her brothers that she was foolish to leave school while leaving behind her boyfriend who continues with his studies as though nothing has happened.
“I was angry that my boyfriend continued with school, in fact, there was no clear plan for us but just wishes for a new life as newlyweds.
This angered me. I thought my boyfriend would quickly leave school to join me at his home as we had agreed that we are getting married to each other and starting a life in Thaba-Tseka,” she said.
She said the thought that among her peers in school, she was the only one to have found herself impregnated at her age and she was ashamed.
Nthatuoa said her parents’ positive messages encouraging her to return home made her eager to go back home.
“While I was in Thaba-Tseka, I discovered that my boyfriend’s grandmother whom I had been told is a very strict had been informed that I had been married in secrecy and was hidden in the house without her knowledge.
“Then she came into the house I was hiding without us expecting her and harshly quizzed me why I had the courage to do such a thing as marry myself off in secrecy.
“She asked why I came to my boyfriend’s home leaving him behind. She further ordered me to return to my home as my parents want me back.
“She also said I would still get married later when I was done with my studies,” she said.
Nthatuoa said the old woman’s words hurt her feelings and made her want to return home immediately.
Back home in Leribe, she said she was now petrified of being stigmatised on her return to school.
One of the conditions for her return to School was that she must be back at school with immediate effect, but she said she feared to be laughed at by other students.
After a few days, the School Principal Khabele Khabele had called her home asking for Nthatuoa to return to school. She said Khabele had put a condition that she must first report to school with her parents.
“He said when going to meet him with my parents there would not be any need for me to put on my school uniform. All he wanted was for to discuss with me and my parents my fate at the school.
“When we came to meet him for the meeting he only informed us to expect visitors from Maseru (Beautiful Dreams Society)” she said.
Nthatuaoa, now leaving at Beautiful Dreams Society’s shelter, said “if I had stayed, I would have been a very young wife staying in a very backward place in Thaba-Tseka without a future. But, now, with the help of BDS, I am continuing my studies while my baby is well-taken care off by this home”.
“BDS has made sure all the needs of my baby are met and I get to have a good life and enjoy my school days without any worries about my baby. “I’m a girl again and have all that a girl would ask for today”.
She said while visiting her home in Leribe during the Christmas vacation, she discovered her boyfriend had gone back to his home.
“I learned he had run to an initiation school. He left school before he could finish his studies.
“My aspirations have always been to be a nurse. And I believe now I can still archive my aspirations now that BDS is taking care of me and my baby” she said cheerfully.
For her parents “while she was still studying, doing her Form D at Boribeng, we learned that she disappeared from school and got married.” As her parents, ‘Manthatuoa said they joined forces with her teachers to take her out of that marriage.
She said they also learned that her last born in ten children who appear to be the most brilliant, had been bunking classes for a week before she could abscond.
“I even had to seek domestic work in South Africa so that I could pay her fees and had just come home when this story unfolded.”
“We were stunned by this incident, how could they get married?” she remarked, adding they were peeved to learn that the boy who impregnated her stay daughter was still at school while she had eloped alone.
She says she even reported the matter to their village chief.
‘Manthatuoa said she then called the boy’s parents telling them to release her daughter as she would not give her blessings to the marriage of her daughter of that age “and they concurred but my daughter was already pregnant”.
“Upon her arrival, I went to school with her and the arrangements to go and complete her studies in Maseru were made.”
“Marriages have lost their meaning and our kids are only getting impoverished. My daughter disappointed me because I wanted quality education for her.” She was, however, comforted by the role of all stakeholders in taking her back to school.
*Names have been changed to protect the victim.