It's all too easy to imagine that all young mothers look like MTV Teen Mom subjects, but these photos of teen mothers from around the globe tell a more complex story about motherhood that can add some perspective. Ahead of the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen this week, photographer and filmmaker Pieter ten Hoopen travelled to talk to teenage mothers from Zambia, Haiti, and everywhere in between, and to photograph them and document their stories.
This is the 4th Annual Women Deliver conference, where policy makers and researchers gather to discuss women's rights and health, which is always a good thing. But Hoopen's images and interviews with the subjects, written by Sofia Nordenskiold, a journalist and press officer for Plan International, sum up many of the issues women from around the world face. Some of the women have husbands or boyfriends that they willingly slept with and then didn't have options once they were pregnant. Others girls had more complicated stories.
Most of the girls had no sex education before starting to date or have sex. Many, in their own words, say that they didn't even understand the mechanics of sex or of pregnancy, though most of their countries have clinics and some access to contraception. Some say they would still be too scared to ask for contraception, even knowing that it exists. Some are part of women's groups in their communities and helping other girls to understand their own bodies. Others have sworn off sex and more children since giving birth.
Many of them are disappointed to have given up on school and the careers they dreamed about, though they have hope that they can return to them once their children are grown. Others are happy to be taking care of a household and a family and have no interest in furthering their education.
Their respective stories mainly show that sometimes motherhood is a choice, other times it isn't, and that every mother learns to adapt, wherever they are.
Or, in other words, females are strong as hell.
Colombia: Ana, 15 with Karen, 4 months
As a teen mom, Ana is also dealing with everyday heartbreak. She says she has had no contact with her "boyfriend" since she got pregnant. He doesn't "see this as a responsibility," she told Nordenskiold.
My sister is at university and I wanted to be a Marine Officer. But there's a law that says if you have kids, you can’t join. So now I have another career in mind, which is to start a pastry shop. I'm back at school and want to study hard to become a professional and give something to my daughter.
Haiti: Angelica, 13 with Lucner, 3 months
Angelica lives with her son, her parents, and her siblings in a slum in Haiti after losing their home in an earthquake. Her parents kicked her out of the house after learning about her pregnancy. She slept on doorsteps, with her mother delivering her food sometimes.
My dream is to go back to school. We were a group of friends who would do theatre and sing...I shouldn’t have had a baby at my age. I’m too young. I can’t even take care of him.
Jordan: Muna, 14, with Rim, 3 months
According to Nordenskiold, Muna lives with her daughter and her husband in a refugee camp in Jordan. Muna wants to have more children and isn't planning on returning to school. She said, "It's a big responsibility, but I'm glad to be a mother. I would like to have three more children."
Bangladesh: Keya, 14, with Rahim, 2 months
Keya fell in love with her husband when she was 13 years old and married Jahangir, 21, against her parents' wishes. She says that she likes being a mother, but that doing her household chores is more difficult now that she has the baby to attend to.
I lost a lot of blood during my delivery because my placenta didn’t come out. I was sent to the hospital with the ambulance, where I got seven bags of blood infusions. No one had told me about the risks of being a young mother. Now I don’t want any more children.
Burkina Faso: Aïssa, 15, with Fati, 13 months
Aïssa lives with her mother and sisters after being raped by a teacher at her school. She lived with his family while she pregnant and then returned home. She hasn't seen him since.
I’m not really feeling happy as a mother. Motherhood to me is really painful because when my child is sick, when she has fever, then it’s my responsibility. Before the baby, I was attending school. Now, when I see my friends going to school, it makes me sad. Very sad. I wanted to be a mother later — not now.
Zambia: Mulenga, 14, with Felicity, 5 weeks
Mulenga became pregnant with her boyfriend but says that she didn't even know how one "got pregnant" when she started having sex. Her mother noticed that she wasn't looking well. While she was pregnant, her father made her stay with her boyfriend's family until they paid a sum of money to return her.
I don’t like being a mother, but I like my child. I feel good when I look at her. I worry about the future and who will buy her things like soap and clothes. When she grows up, I'll take her to school so she gets educated because it’s good for her...I've recently learned you can protect yourself from being pregnant. You can go to the clinic and get contraceptives, but I’m too shy to go there and ask for it. I’ve stopped sleeping with boys.
Jordan: Amira, with Samer, 1 and Amal, 12 days old
Amir lives in a refugee camp with her two children and her husband, unnamed in the story. They married when she was 13 years old and she stopped attending school to become a wife and mother.
It’s so hard to take care of a child when you’re a child yourself. For example, I’m not sure if I should be carrying my children all the time. Plus, I have to take care my husband too. I don’t have any free time for myself. My children take up much more time than all the housekeeping. My newborn baby cries a lot. Sometimes, I don’t know why he’s crying. He just does....I don’t want any more children now. It’s enough. I have two and I should take care of them. I want to use contraception in the future. It’s easy to get but I didn’t know this before.
Bangladesh: Rabeya, 16 with Kushum, 3 years old
Rabeya has been pregnant three times. Only one child survived, after a miscarriage and an illness took another at 3 months old. She said, "Since then I haven’t had a period. I don’t want to have any more children. I don’t have any more energy. I'm happy with my one child and thankfully my husband agrees."
Before I was married I dreamed of becoming a teacher. As I'm married now and have a family, nobody is going to help. I have to manage my own household. My dream, though, is that my child, my husband and I buy our own house where we’re happy.
Burkina Faso: Kiswensida, 15, with Koudbi, 1 month
Kiswensida got pregnant at 14 years old with a boyfriend and now lives with grandparents and her aunts. She is able to go to school because of help from her family.
One week after I gave birth I was back in school again. I didn't want to abandon my studies. My grandmother has supported me all this time. She helps me take care of the baby so I can go to school. It's hard to be a mother. I feel alone and miss my parents, they work in the Ivory Coast and haven’t seen the baby yet. In the future I would like to have more children but not now. I think 26 is a good age. My dream is to become an architect and I would like my daughter to go to school.
Colombia: Janet, 15, with Manuel, 6 months
Janet lives with her boyfriend in a major city in Colombia. She is now back in school and is part of a group for young mothers, where she gets advice on nutrition, health, and family planning. She also goes to beauty school on the weekends. She said, "I want to become a professional hair stylist to give my son everything."
I didn’t want to have a child, it happened anyway. Now I use a contraceptive implant that lasts for three years. It's easy to get and works well for me. I don’t know why more girls don’t use it....Being a mother is a beautiful experience. Before, I felt lonely at times, but now when I feel alone, I play with my baby. He smiles at me and I can feel that he loves me. He knows me already.
Haiti: Lumilene, 15, with Clairina, 6 months
Lumilene got pregnant by a boy she doesn't see anymore and lives with her mother and her daughter. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy, but her mother told her she should keep the baby. "She wasn't angry," Lumilene said. She's now back in school.
I wasn't afraid. Although I was in pain, I felt no fear. After more than 24 hours in labor, I finally gave birth. The hospital didn’t give me any pain relief. They just used scissors and made a cut. It took time for me to heal. I was lying in bed, I couldn’t walk and my whole body ached. When I saw my baby girl for the first time, I was so happy.
Zambia: Taonga, 15, has a 4 month old daughter, Margaret
Taonga lives with her daughter and some extended family in a remote area, where she doesn't think she can return to school since her family doesn't have the financial resources to send her. Her daughter's father moved to a different town and they can't afford to keep in touch.
In school we only learned about periods. I didn’t think I would become pregnant. I've heard that you can have injections, though, to prevent pregnancy. I'm feeling good. I just wonder why I have my baby because it’s not easy for me. I enjoy looking at her but not the responsibility that's involved in taking care of a child. My stepmother helps me out but my baby cries a lot because she is still breastfeeding so I always need to be close by.
Bangladesh: Nargis, 15, with Nayeem, 1.5 years old
Nargis was married off to a man because her family couldn't afford to support her anymore. She now lives with her husband, son, and works in a garment factory.
I knew about the consequences of early marriage, but still, I had to get married at 14. At first I didn't want to be a mother, but after marriage, people’s minds change. You don’t think like before. All my future plans are for my son now...Well, I do have a dream, I would like to pass my exams and finish school. My husband said that he will let me study later. I'm happy with my life now.
Each of the girls have different stories to tell and you can see more on Twitter with the hashtag #childrenmothers. Common narratives like the lack of education about their own bodies, access to healthcare, and poverty tie them together. That, and their love for their children, which may be the best thing of all.
All of the above photos will be on display at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen until May 19. You can donate to PLAN International or the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the two organizations Hoopen and Nordenskiold have partnered with on the photo project, in order to help provide education and resources to teen mothers across the globe.