BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – Thabisile Mthethwa, 18, is a single mother who sells vegetables to support herself and her two children in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. Her hand-me-down clothes hang on her slim body.
She became pregnant at 15 after having sex with a 42-year-old “sugar daddy,” a common name for older men who offer gifts to girls if they have sex with them. She says girls don’t always understand what sex is when they agree to these transactions.
“I had no idea about sex,” Mthethwa says. “But because I wanted to please this man who had promised me a cell phone, money and free transport to school every day, I did as I was told.”
Even though she had learned about reproduction as a broad subject in her science class at school, she says she had no idea how it applied to her own body. She believed at the time that if she took painkillers immediately after sex, she could not get pregnant.
She eventually began to get stomach cramps. She went to a clinic, where nurses informed her that she was pregnant.
When she confronted her partner about the pregnancy, he threatened her with violence.
Mthethwa says she considered abortion but decided against it when she realized she had no one to help her through it. But she also had few people to support her during her pregnancy.
“I wanted to end my life,” she says. “I attempted all the methods of committing suicide I had heard about, but none of them worked. I just wanted to die because I was so ashamed of the disappointment I had caused my family.”
She says her father disowned her, so she stayed with her aunt for most of her pregnancy.
The Zimbabwe government announced a new policy in 2010 that entitles girls who get pregnant while in school to three months of maternity leave instead of expelling them. But after delivering her baby, Mthethwa returned to school for less than a month before bullying and ridicule from her peers forced her to permanently drop out.
“I had no access to any counseling that would have prepared me for life back in class after what other students perceived as an embarrassing episode,” she says.
She also no longer felt any connection to the girls in her class.
“I was now a mother learning with girls,” she explains as she nurses her infant.
Eventually, her family forgave her and allowed her to come back home. But already struggling to take care of her and her siblings, her parents could not afford to support her baby.
She had to find a way to fend for herself, which led her to engage in sexual intercourse with another sugar daddy in exchange for financial support. She soon became pregnant with her second child.
Mthethwa says that her life would have been different if she had received more support to continue her education.
A lack of sex education makes girls in Zimbabwe vulnerable to becoming pregnant