Photo courtesy of Pieter ten Hoopen/Plan International/UNFPA.
Mulenga*, 14, lives with her daughter, parents, her father's second wife, and ten siblings in a remote village in Zambia. She used to go to school, and wanted to become a doctor, until her mother discovered she was pregnant.
Sofia Klemming Nordenskiöld is a journalist and Plan International Sweden press officer. The views expressed here are her own.
Photographer Pieter ten Hoopen and I spent the last several months traveling the world with our portable studio in order to document more than 25 child mothers. The portable studio was Pieter's idea. He wanted to create vintage family portraits that would give the young girls and their children our full attention, in a dignified way. He used the same background and setting in order to portray that this is a global issue that creates similar challenges, regardless of where the child mothers happen to live.
It was not until I was 30 that I gave birth to my first child — more than twice the age of 13-year-old Angelica, whom we interviewed for this project.
The fabric we used for the studio started out a nice, off-white color. By the end of the tour, it had become covered with red soil, brown clay, and gray dust from the four continents that we visited. During our photo sessions, we asked the local children and neighbors to chase away any dogs, goats, cows, and chickens. We waited hours for the right photo opportunity — for the rain to pass, the wind to stop blowing, or the sun to disappear.
Gaining access to the villages where some of these child mothers lived was often a challenge; we would get lost on the winding tracks of the savanna, or get stuck in city traffic jams. Some countries considered the topic of early-onset motherhood too sensitive, and therefore, didn't welcome us.
Still, this is obviously nothing compared to the everyday challenges of these child mothers who we had the honor to meet. During this project, I often thought a lot about my own youth. What if I had become a mother back then? When I was 14, I loved horses and used to hang out in the stables. I also liked to wear makeup and listen to Prince, and I had a boyfriend who was 17.
It was not until I was 30 that I gave birth to my first child — more than twice the age of 13-year-old Angelica, whom we interviewed for this project. I had a career, a partner of my own choice, a safe place to live, and free health care, and yet I still worried about not being able to give my son everything he needed.
Angelica worries about having enough to eat. She was thrown out of the hospital during her difficult delivery because she could not pay for the care, and she has been forced to leave school. Still, she remains the center of her son Lucner's universe. But Angelica and Lucner are two children against the rest of the world.
The girls we met opened their hearts and their homes to tell us about their lives. They shared their honest stories about first love, separations, and arranged marriages; angry parents, illnesses, and utter loneliness, as well as intense feelings of joy and of pain. Some of the girls we met nearly lost their lives during their complicated deliveries. Others sadly lost their babies.
The bravery of these young mothers has taught us what it is like to be a child — and a mother — at the same time.
With their trust comes huge responsibility — for us to protect them and to do them justice. We have decided not to share all of the stories we have heard. Some girls have suffered such extreme physical and psychological violence due to their early pregnancies. One girl told us that she was almost beaten to death because of the shame she had brought upon her family, while others were forced to perform unsafe abortions, for fear of being thrown out of their homes.
We also know that many young girls who become pregnant are victims of sexual abuse. With this all in mind, some of their stories have been modified so as not to put their safety at risk, while others have been left out altogether.
There are still so many stories yet to be told. In our #childmothers project, we have selected only a few in the hopes that they serve as eye-openers. The bravery of these young mothers has taught us what it is like to be a child — and a mother — at the same time.
*Names have been changed by Plan International for protection purposes.
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