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Between a rock and hard place

  • Young women’s quest for sexual empowerment in a country where patriarchal values still hold sway

Nthatuoa Koeshe

NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD *Nthabiseng is in the third trimester of her first pregnancy and she has a domineering husband.

Although he works in South Africa and only comes home once a month, his volcanic temper ensures she toes his line even in his absence.

It is the fear of that temper and being attacked that has thrown Nthabiseng into a huge dilemma over whether or not to tell him that she wishes to go on contraceptives or to just go ahead and use them in secret.

“I doubt my husband would agree to birth control because he is very stubborn so I will do it without his knowledge because I need to give this child I am expecting the love it needs before giving it a brother or a sister,” she says as she lovingly caresses her bulging belly.

Nthabiseng — who got married recently — is one of many young Basotho women caught between competing values steeped in traditional African tenets on one hand, and Eurocentric beliefs, on the other.

“I am in my third trimester and I cannot wait to deliver my baby,” she says.

To do so without any hitches, tradition dictates that she smears her body with letsoku, a reddish concoction which is popular with new male initiates.

Although she is sceptical about this traditional belief and the perceived efficacy of the herbal mixture, she has no choice but to use it as it is believed to assist women deliver healthy babies.

She is, however, glad because she will give birth soon, so that she can stop applying the concoction. “People stare at me because of this reddish substance. But I am used to that now; it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Asked if she wants to have another child soon after this pregnancy, she coyly hides her pretty face in a big mink blanket she has over her shoulders and emphatically says, “No”.

Nthabiseng says she wants to take some time before she has another baby but is worried her husband might not like the idea.

In most rural Basotho communities female and children’s labour forms the bedrock of agricultural production and has made a significant contribution to the sustenance of the homestead.

The way in which most rural households operate allows men to be released to find work in South Africa without unbalancing the economic structure which is built on having large families.

This social arrangement places men at the apex of the family hierarchy or what Belinda Bozzoli in her article, Marxism, Feminism and South African Studies, has termed the “rule of fathers over both sons and daughters”.

Nthabiseng’s husband has embraced this thinking and retains the right to decide when and how many children she can have.

Feminists and rights bodies have their work cut out for them as they attempt to roll back age-old traditions that have existed in patriarchal Lesotho for centuries.

Experts estimate over 214 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities.

Next to Nthabiseng, is heavily pregnant *Lineo whose husband allows her to use contraceptives. Lineo is eight months pregnant. She points to a small scar on her arm which she says is the result of a family planning device which has been implanted within. She however, says that the implant has failed her because despite having it, she is now eight months pregnant.

She already has a two-year-old son and was not planning on having another child anytime soon.

She opted for the implant owing to inconsistent provision of contraceptives in her village and she thought getting one, which theoretically prevents pregnancies for five years was a good idea.

“In many cases I saw women defaulting on their contraceptives because health providers do not come as often in our village as they should, and the nearby clinic does not offer contraceptives,” she said.

A non-governmental organisation’s attempts to fill the gap created by inadequate government resources through a mobile service are also erratic.

The service rarely has enough resources and supplies, forcing women to jump from one method of contraception to another thus messing up their systems and endangering their health.

Semakaleng Mochalotsa falls in this bracket which makes up 18 percent of women countrywide with unmet contraceptives needs.

She is part of women who, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), are sexually active but are not using any method of contraception despite not wanting more children or wanting to space them.

She has two children and although she has her husband’s support in taking contraceptives, she is not sure if she should go ahead with the idea.

Mochalotsa said she has considered going for an implant but feels it would be a waste of time as there were a number of women who still fell pregnant despite having an implant.

She added that she has met a number of women who say contraceptives changed their bodies and she did not want any changes to hers.

“I am still contemplating. Maybe I will eventually change my mind but at the moment I do not intend to take contraceptives,” she said.

Mochalotsa is also part of the 67 percent of currently married women who reported to UNFPA not using any family planning methods but intend to use a family planning method in the future.

According to UNFPA access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right, and family planning is central to gender equality and women’s empowerment – a key factor in reducing poverty.

It, however, stated that in developing regions, some 214 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services, to lack of support from their partners or communities.

“This threatens their ability to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities,” the UNFPA report states.

Marking World Contraception Day on 26 September, UNFPA stated that their vision was to create a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and young people’s potential is fulfilled.

“It is of paramount importance that every woman must be free to decide when to start child bearing and when to stop. It is the right of every woman to have a choice on the number and spacing of their children.”

In Lesotho, UNFPA supports procurement of family planning commodities for and on behalf of the government in an effort to ensure commodity security. UNFPA also supports the Ministry of Health in terms of policy direction and creating an enabling environment to increase access and uptake of family planning.

Maletela Tuoane, a senior health specialist at the World Bank, notes that more than half of the women with post-secondary education are using contraception. She further observes that the use of contraception is highest when the women’s partners have secondary or higher levels of education and are working. If the partner is not working, contraceptive use is less likely.

“Differences are also observed in contraceptive use depending on region and place of residence. Women living in the capital Maseru and those in the southern part of Lesotho have the highest contraceptive use and those in the mountain region have the lowest.

“As expected, urban dwellers use contraceptives more than their rural counterparts. The family planning environment in which a woman lives is important. As expected, women living in communities where there is a family planning facility tend to use contraceptives more than those who have to travel to another place for the services.

“Also, women who have access to Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) clinics have higher contraceptive use followed by those who have access to both LPPA and a hospital. All LPPA clinics are in urban areas which could explain higher contraceptive use among women with access to LPPA clinics,” Ms Tuoane writes in her report on contraceptive use.

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