Denying Liberia’s Babies: Teen Fathers Speak

By Mae Azango
Some of these young boys are from broken homes. Sometimes it is peer pressure that causes many of the teen fathers to deny pregnancies.”  But there are also other factors. – Ali Sylla, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Counseling and Restorative Dialogue in Monrovia.

Nathan became a young dad at the age of 15, but the secondary school senior does not have to worry about providing for the child.  He denied the pregnancy from the start, when his 16-year-old girlfriend said he was responsible.

“After two months, she came to me and said she was pregnant for me, so I begin to get vexed and said it was not for me,” says Nathan, now 19, who asked that his last name not be used for this story.

When his mother asked him if he knew the big-bellied girl who brought her parents and the police to their house, he says he told his mother that he knew the girl but denied getting her pregnant.

Nathan lives in the Duport Road neighborhood of Monrovia.  He is one of thousands of boys in Liberia who get girls pregnant and refuse to accept responsibility each year. They leave young expectant mothers and their families to carry the burden by themselves.

Almost one in three Liberian girls aged 15-19 has already begun child bearing, according to the latest Ministry of Health figures.  However, there is no statistic from the ministry as to how many of our country’s teenage boys are fathers or reject pregnancies.

“My pa did not believe I could do something like that, because he never saw me with a girlfriend before. My pa starting making threatening remarks that he was going to put me out of the house and was going to take his hand from my school business if I impregnate any girl.  So I deny the pregnancy when he asked.” -Nathan, Teen dad

Some teen boys deny pregnancies because of financial problems, says Ali Sylla, founder and executive director of the Center for Counseling and Restorative Dialogue in Monrovia.  But there are also other factors.

“Some of these young boys are from broken homes,” says Sylla. “Sometimes it is peer pressure that causes many of the teen fathers to deny pregnancies.”

In other instances, parental pressure plays a role, with parents threatening to throw out a son who gets a girl pregnant.  Nathan says fear of his father’s retribution pushed him to lie and dismiss the pregnancy.

“My pa did not believe I could do something like that, because he never saw me with a girlfriend before,” says Nathan.

“My pa starting making threatening remarks that he was going to put me out of the house and was going to take his hand from my school business if I impregnate any girl.  So I deny the pregnancy when he asked.”

Some youths who deny pregnancies never claim the child due to shame, while others realize their mistakes and eventually come around to acknowledge the child.

The story worked out differently in Nathan’s case.  After pressure from the girl’s family, Nathan’s parents, who live in Harbel Firestone, took the child in without telling Nathan.

“One time when I went for vacation in Harbel, I saw a baby sitting on the floor in my people’s house and asked whose baby was it,” Nathan says.

“When my small sister said that it was my baby, I got vexed and I slapped her. My pa told me that I should not beat my sister because the baby was my trouble I had caused.”

Teen pregnancies are a big factor in the high rate of primary and secondary school dropouts of boys and girls in Liberia, according to experts we talked to at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

Teen fathers as well as mothers are often forced to leave school to provide and care for their babies.

This educational setback is a major cause of the poverty in our country, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the world.

Young moms and dads often do not achieve their goals in life due to the financial pressures of raising children.

Many of these youths usually settle for low-wage jobs as unskilled workers and lose their opportunity at a brighter future.

While carefree youths are playing basketball on Monrovia’s King Sao Bosso Street and having fun, Varlee Kromah, 18, is thinking about what his baby is going to eat.

As a teen dad, Varlee no longer spends his money foolishly; instead, he must think about the wellbeing of his child.

Varlee, a secondary school graduate who lives in the Clara Town community of Monrovia, now has a 4-month-old baby boy, Varlee Kromah Jr., that he had by Princess Toe, 16, who was forced to drop out of school.

“It took me by surprise,” Varlee says.  “I almost denied the pregnancy and told her to go away, but my parents told me I could not do that because they used to see the girl in my yard.  I would have denied the pregnancy if not for my parents.”

Unlike Nathan, Varlee is one of a handful of teen fathers that accept responsibility for a pregnancy.  He tries to provide for the baby by selling auction goods on the street to earn a few Liberian dollars.  He also volunteers doing community outreach for Sylla’s youth center in exchange for an occasional handout.

Even though Varlee accepted the pregnancy, he still gets pressure from his friends to shrug the responsibility and, at times, wishes he was not a dad.

“Sometimes, I regret having this baby because I no longer do anything for myself,” says Varlee.

“Like for this past Christmas season, I had to cater to the child and the mother and, as a result, I had nothing left for me.”

“My friends would tell me: ‘My man, this kind of hard time. When you are not doing anything, where you would get money from to support a baby? You better say it is not for you.”

Despite fearing such hardship, many of Liberia’s youths refuse to use condoms to prevent pregnancies or HIV/AIDS. Varlee is no exception.

“I cannot get the feelings when I use condoms; I like flesh to flesh,” Varlee says. “I told my son’s mother to take family planning, but she said she does not like it. And I myself do not like using condoms.” Nathan says his girlfriend was the one who refused condoms.

“Whenever we want to have sex and I take out my condom from my drawer, my girl used to tell me that she ain’t like it, so I never use condoms,” says Nathan.

Although family planning services are readily available in urban Monrovia, many youths are still engaging in unsafe sex, says Bendu Tulay, acting deputy minister of social welfare. Most reject birth control out of ignorance.

“Youths won’t take family planning because they always look at the negative side of it,” says Tulay.

“They have their incorrect perception that family planning would make them infertile. Most people believe that, when you are taking family planning, you’ll not have a baby again. That is false. So we need to create more awareness.”

Yet creating awareness is difficult when family planning facilities in rural Liberia are not accessible due to bad road conditions.

Ali Sylla, 37, now runs mentoring and counseling programs for local youths and says it is important to promote an open dialogue.

He speaks from personal experience because he too suffered the effects of being a young father when he was 17.

“Based on my background, where a child is to be seen and not heard, I could not discuss with my parents that a girl was pregnant from me,” says Sylla. He says he remembers having many anxieties at that young age. “What did I know about parenting?  I only wanted to play basketball,” says Sylla.

Sylla says he regrets not being around when his daughter Vanessa was growing up. Now his child isn’t carrying his name but the last name of her stepfather. Nathan, meanwhile, says he calls on his friends who are in the habit of denying pregnancies to stop because nobody knows the future of a child.

”That child could be a president or doctor tomorrow,” says Nathan.

But Nathan himself has not fully accepted nor come clean with his own daughter.  She is being raised by Nathan’s parents in his hometown of Harbel Firestone.  The child knows him only as her older brother, not her father.  Nathan himself does not know the future of his relationship with the child.
Mae Azango is a fellow of New Narratives, a project supporting independent media in Africa.“”