The surge in teenage pregnancies and single mothers in the state has ignited debates about the liberal social fabric that permits relationships and cohabitation.
However, it also sheds light on the patriarchal norms that hinder women’s ability to make decisions regarding their own sexual health.
According to the National Family Health Survey Report (NFHS)-5, women in Meghalaya are more likely to participate in decisions related to their family’s health.
However, they often lack the conviction to refuse sex with their partners.
Startlingly, only 39 per cent of men believe that a woman is justified in refusing sex if she knows her husband has a sexually transmitted disease, engages in extramarital affairs, or is simply not in the mood.
Moreover, the NFHS-5 report reveals a low contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) of 27 per cent among women aged 15-49 in the state.
The CPR indicates the percentage of women of reproductive age who use or whose partners use a contraceptive method. This contradiction raises concerns about women’s limited decision-making power when it comes to their own sexual and reproductive health.
Dr. Glenn C. Kharkongor, Chancellor of Martin Luther Christian University, highlights this paradox and the underlying societal taboo surrounding discussions on sex and sexual-reproductive health.
Meghalaya’s tribal society, known for passing property custody to women, exhibits one of the highest fertility rates in the country. However, the lack of awareness about sexual and reproductive health persists.
The NFHS-5 report further indicates that 7 per cent of young women aged 15-19 in the state have already experienced childbirth or are pregnant with their first child, a decrease from 9 per cent. However, this rise in teenage mothers brings forth a host of problems, including higher infant and maternal mortality rates.
Consequently, the state’s education system plays a crucial role, as the proportion of young women who have started childbearing is significantly higher among those with no schooling (30 per cent) compared to those with 12 or more years of education (1 per cent), according to the NFHS-5 report.
The thesis titled ‘Challenges faced by Khasi Female Headed Households in East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, with a special focus on the education of Children,’ submitted to Martin Luther Christian University by Marbaniang Syiemlieh also showed how education varies in families that are headed by two parents and the ones that are single-mother households.
The thesis took into account 200 households in East Khasi Hills where the number of children in both the households was almost equal, however, the number of school going children in a female-headed household is half as compared to one fourth of the children in a two-parent household.
The alarming rise in teenage pregnancies and the stigma surrounding discussions on sexual health demand urgent attention.
It is imperative to challenge the contradictions embedded in Meghalaya’s social fabric, where women are regarded as custodians of property but face barriers to exercising their sexual autonomy.
Only efforts made to improve comprehensive sex education, promote awareness about contraception, and dismantle patriarchal norms that restrict women’s conviction in matters of sexual and reproductive health.
Experts, such as Iarisa Anette R. Dorphlang, Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Work, Edmunds College, attribute these challenges to a lack of awareness. Dorphlang emphasises the urgent need for intensive sex education, as well as sensitising parents and teachers about contraceptive options, as a way to address these issues.
Dr Wandaia Syngkon, Assistant Professor(PG), Department of Social Work, Edmunds College spoke about how poor parenting, broken and dysfunctional families are one of the socio-cultural reasons behind the alarming numbers of teenage pregnancies.
“Each one of us has our love tanks, and as parents, they are responsible to fill up that love tank. In the urban setting, people remain busy with white collar job, blue collar jobs. In the rural community, they are busy with poultry, piggery, and they don’t have the time to take care of the emotional needs of their children,” she mentioned.
Syngkon said human beings tend to outsource love to fill up the tanks and emotional needs, and that’s when the younglings who are not aware of reproductive health or sexual health get involved and end up as young mothers.
Dorphlang cites an example of a village that has implemented a fine of Rs 50,000 for teenage pregnancies, highlighting the potential impact of community-led measures in reducing the high numbers of teenage mothers.
As Meghalaya grapples with these challenges, addressing the underlying socio-cultural factors and implementing effective strategies will be crucial to empower women, reduce teenage pregnancies, and create a more equitable and informed society.