Why the shock? (Part I)
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
While I was in still in MIQ, I came across an article on the Matangi Tonga website titled "Report uncovers dangers of unplanned adolescent pregnancies in Tonga". It was originally published on 25/03/2021 and updated on 26/03/2021. The article showed the Minister of Health’s shocked reaction to the findings of a report (Adolescent unplanned pregnancy in the Pacific: Tonga by Linhart et. al, 2020), and the need to take future action.
(Link here: https://matangitonga.to/2021/03/25/unplanned-pregnancies-tonga).
An excerpt from the article (In reaction to the report):
“…Tonga’s Minister of Health said she was shocked by a report on adolescent unplanned pregnancy in Tonga, launched today, “because I did not know that young girls can take their own lives because they find out they are pregnant. ...We cannot continue that into the future!... I was shocked to read the girls would rather jump from high places, drink blue bleach, take so much doses of pills, all because within the environment we facilitate shamefulness to such situations. Now is the time for us women to pull down the curtain to stop that!...”
Initial Thoughts on the news article
So, just based on the news article, I didn’t understand why the Minister of Health was surprised or shocked as reported on Matangi Tonga. Tonga is a conservative, “Christian” and patriarchal society. With that context in mind, there are gender expectations on Tongan women and girls to be “pure” and “virginal” before marriage. For women, deviating from that expectation and exploring sexuality or doing anything sexual would induce great stigma, judgement and shame from their families and communities. However, if Tongan men slept around and had a very extensive and active sexual history, no one would bat an eye. If a Tongan man had xxx children out of wedlock, it's also no big deal. It wouldn't be the topic of the village gossip. It's unfair and fucked up, but that's how it's always been. So why was the Minister so shocked that young Tongan women would consider suicide or abortion in a society where shame placed upon them is so heavy? This is part of the outcome of the society we are shaped in. Why is this shocking? If anything, it's tragic but unsurprising...really, why are you shocked?
In turn, it made me really curious about the content of the report. Was there any particular aspect of the report that was exceptionally shocking? After a quick search on Google Scholar (Adolescent unplanned pregnancy in the Pacific: Tonga by Linhart et. al, 2020), I found the report and had a read.
What the report is about:
Adolescent unplanned pregnancy in the Pacific: Tonga
I think the title is self-explanatory. The report is based on a study around unplanned pregnancies of adolescent women across countries in the Pacific, one of which is Tonga (The other countries are Chuuk State from Micronesia and Vanuatu from the Melanesia area of the Pacific).
The study was carried out by interviewing 20-25 people across the Tonga Island groups. Some of the participants were young women from ages 16-19 across Tongatapu, Vava'u and Ha'apai and their experiences with their unexpected pregnancies. Other participants were older women who were asked about their traditional knowledge of sexual health practices in the Tongan context.
The study looks into the experiences of the young women with their pregnancies, as well as exploring the power dynamics of relationships with the father of their baby, the influence of social media on their relationships, the reaction of their families and communities upon finding out about their pregnancies and their level of knowledge regarding sexual health practices and contraception. There are parts of the report that does briefly show some of the participant's experiences who had asked around for ways to illegally abort the foetus (keep in mind these are harmful to the body of the mother too), or the young women had contemplated suicide upon discovering their pregnancies, which I suppose is the parts that probably shocked the Minister (as in the news article above).
I'm sure we can all agree that sex is a taboo topic across many Pacific countries. Sex education to teach young people about safe sex and using contraceptives are practically unheard of, and the most common (and impractical IMO😒) advice is abstinence until marriage. A majority of Pacific cultures still holds on to conservative "Christian" views and a slut-shaming kind of mindset for sexually active young women. I think this is what makes the study interesting because it should be making us think twice, thrice and many more times, about the long term impact of such outdated and toxic patriarchal beliefs on young people, especially young women.
Focusing on Tonga though, the report shows that some of these young women who were involved in the study were in sexually and physically abusive relationships with their partners, or they were tricked (catfished) online into a relationship by an older man (i.e. predatory behaviour) or they had felt pressured to be a "good submissive girlfriend" and put out to please their partners. Preaching about "abstinence and waiting until marriage" in school doesn't even make sense in such scenarios when young women have been emotionally, psychologically, physically, and sexually abused and manipulated past the point of no return.
Part of the recommendations in the report suggests for a more well-rounded and open discussion around sexual and reproductive health for young people, positive relationships, awareness around gender equality as well as sex education in schools. There is nothing out of the ordinary for these recommendations (from a Western perspective), but taking into consideration the cultural context of Tonga, I reckon this will be a pretty big ask. In my opinion, the amount of shame and guilt that the young women in the study had to carry, along with their baby is far too much for a teenager to bear. As such, there needs to be serious work in looking into the recommendations mentioned in the report to be considered and implemented in the near future, despite how challenging it may be.
I had a lot of thoughts on the report itself, which I believe covers many important issues that need to be addressed. However, considering the type of religious conservative context of Tonga, and as I mentioned above, I don't think it would be easy to implement many changes around the existing stigma around teen pregnancies in Tonga.
I personally agreed with many of the recommendations in the report to address the issues. I really do understand the relevance of the recommendations mentioned in the report and it makes sense to work towards ensuring changes happen. However, looking at the way things are right now, with too many bigoted old men in power all over the place, I don't know how much push there will be to implement these changes, even in the next 10-15 years. Maybe that's just the pessimist in me, I dunno. If you're curious about the report, you can Google Scholar search it (reference below) and see how you feel about it.
Linhart, C., McMillan, K., Gorman, H., O’Connor, C., O’Connor, M., Rokoduru, A., & Tu’i’onetoa, T. F. (2020). Adolescent unplanned pregnancy in the Pacific: Tonga. Sydney: School of Public Health and Community Medicine, UNSW.
You already know the vibe. Part II will be about bits and pieces of the report I thought were particularly important for young people to think about and be aware of.
Thanks for reading this one. Until then.