• Lumilene, 15, lives in Haiti with her daughter Clairina, 6 months. (Plan International-UNFPA)Source: Plan International-UNFPA
Every year about two million girls give birth before they turn 15. The travelling photo exhibition #childmothers aims to bring these invisible mothers into the light.
Alyssa Braithwaite

18 May 2016 - 11:24 AM  UPDATED 18 May 2016 - 11:24 AM

Fourteen-year-old Mulenga would like to go and play football with her friends. But she has a five-week-old daughter called Felicity to care for, so she can't go to school anymore, let alone play.

"I don't like being a mother, but I like my child," the Zambian teenager says. "I feel good when I look at her."

The UN estimated in 2013 that two million girls give birth before turning 15 - that's 5500 every day - before their bodies are ready.

Such young girls face the greatest risk of complications from pregnancy and childbirth - yet they are often hidden in statistics and excluded from development interventions.

A new photo exhibition called #childmothers, currently travelling the globe, aims to highlight the issue of very early motherhood by sharing the experiences of 20 mothers and their children from six countries. Told in their own words, the stories also reveal some of the issues that led them into early parenthood, such as poverty, gender inequality, discrimination and lack of access to services.

The joint initiative between Plan International and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) was launched at the global conference Women Deliver in Copenhagen on the health, rights and well-being of girls and women.

Here are the stories of six of those girls, whose names have been changed.


Angelica, 13, and Lucner, 3 months, from Haiti 

Angelica lives with her son, her parents and her siblings in an urban, violent slum area in Haiti. She met her boyfriend, became pregnant and had to leave school when she was in seventh grade. Her boyfriend continues school like before.

"I knew there was a risk to become pregnant but I didn't think it would happen to me. In school we didn't learn much about things like this. I have a boyfriend who is 16 and we have been a couple for a while. When I got pregnant, my father kicked me out of the house temporarily. I had to sleep on people’s doorsteps. Once in a while my mother would send me food. I shouldn’t have had a baby at my age. I’m too young. I can’t even take care of him."

"When I was pregnant, I became extremely skinny because I wasn’t getting enough food. It was hard; I wasn’t in school and I had to sleep on the streets. The day I went into labour, my mom was out. I went to several clinics but they couldn’t help me because my case was too severe. There was a high risk that both the baby and I would die. In the maternity clinic, I remember they didn’t let me in since I didn’t have any money. I was lying on the pavement outside with the worst pain. Then a woman came by and helped me, lending me money for medication and a C-section."

"My dream is to go back to school; I liked it so much. I had a group of friends that I went to school with, where we would perform and sing. It’s sad to see my friends going to school and I can’t go. Even my boyfriend continues to go to school like before while I need to stay at home. My one wish is that my son will get an education."


Mulenga, 14, and Felicity, five weeks, from Zambia 

Mulenga lives with her daughter, her parents, her father's second wife and her ten siblings in a remote village in Zambia. She used to go to school and wanted to become a doctor when her mother discovered she was pregnant.

"It’s difficult being a mother. I don’t have time to play anymore. My daughter often cries and I have to stay at home and take care of her and wash nappies. Before I had a baby, I used to play and go wherever I wanted. I like playing football.

"I had no idea how you get pregnant. I didn’t even know I was pregnant. We didn’t learn about those things at school. It was my mother who told me I wasn’t looking well. When I realized I was going to have a child, I was upset and annoyed. My mother was too. I told my boyfriend, but he denied responsibility."

"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'll also warn her and tell her not to go out with boys."


Janet, 15, and Lucner, 6 months, from Colombia

Janet lives with her boyfriend, her son and her in-laws in a violent neighborhood in a large city in Colombia. She met her boyfriend at school, fell in love and became pregnant. Janet is now back in school and is also part of a group for young mothers, where she receives advice on nutrition, health and family planning.

"I didn’t want to have a child, it happened anyway despite our efforts to protect ourselves. When I discovered I was pregnant, I felt happy and sad at the same time. Happy for the baby and sad because I knew I had to drop out of school. My boyfriend felt the same. We met in school two years ago. He's 18 years old now and he had to quit school too, to look for work to support our baby."

"Being a mother is a beautiful experience. Before I felt lonely at times but now when I feel alone, I play with my baby, with his toy cars and his little things. He smiles at me and I know he loves me. He knows me already. It's very beautiful."

"Now I've started school again. I'm in the ninth grade and I'm also attending beauty school on weekends. I want to become a professional hair stylist to give my son everything – to pay for his studies and to buy him everything he needs ... What's difficult sometimes is that I have no money to buy him his food or his diapers. When I don’t have anything to eat or food for Manuel, my family helps out."


Aïssa, 15, and Fati, 13 months, from Burkina Faso

Aïssa lives with her daughter, her mother and her two sisters in a rural area in Burkina Faso. She was sexually abused by her teacher when she was 14 and became pregnant as a result. The teacher was later suspended for one year.

"I was 14 when I got pregnant. It was after my primary school exam. I called my teacher to find out about my results and then, since he had my number, he kept calling and asked me to come and see him. I said I wouldn’t go. Then one day, he threatened me and said that if I didn’t come, I would have a problem. So I got frightened and went there to get the results of my exam. Then he raped me."

"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."


Lumilene, 15, and Clairina, 6 months, from Haiti

Lumilene lives with her daughter and her parents in a camp for internally displaced people after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. Their house was destroyed and their economic situation is very difficult. There are many young mothers in the camp and violence against girls and women is common.

"I met a boy who became my boyfriend but we’re not together anymore. I was 14 when I discovered I was pregnant. I wanted to get rid of the baby but my mom didn’t agree. She wasn't angry; she just told me to keep the child."

"Now, when Clairina is six months, I'm happy to be her mother. It's easier now that she's older. When she was just born I couldn’t go out and my mother had to tell me how to hold her. I'm back in school, in the eighth grade. I wake up early, cook porridge and I breastfeed her before leaving her with my mother. When I come from school, I go and fetch water, prepare food, do the laundry and other household chores. When I need to do my homework my mom takes care of her."


Nargis, 15, and Nayeem, 1.5 years, from Bangladesh

Nargis,15, lives with her son, her husband and her in-laws in a rural village in Bangladesh. Nargis's parents did not want her to get married, but say they had no choice since they could not afford to support her anymore. Nargis works in a garment factory to save money for her son's future education.

"I studied until the eighth grade. I really liked school; my favourite subject was science. I had a dream to study law, but my parents couldn’t afford it. Although I knew of the consequences of an early marriage, I still ended up getting married at 14 because my parents are extremely poor.

"At the time of the wedding, I was very nervous. I didn’t know my husband – even now I don’t know his age. I think he’s around 25 and he works in sales. I didn't want to move into his house. I remember crying a lot. Everyone around me somehow convinced me, though.

"I didn’t know anything about the human body. I started having my periods only two or three months before my marriage. I got pregnant and I was fine, I didn't feel sick. At first I didn't want to be a mother but after I got married, people change their mind. You don’t think like before."

"I'm working in a garment factory to save enough money for the future so that my son can get an education and move forward in life. I stitch sleeves. It's not so hard; the machine does all the work. I get up at 5.30 in the morning and then I cook. I have my breakfast, take a shower and feed my son.

"At seven o’clock I take the staff bus. I come back home after work around eight o’clock in the evening. If my son is sleeping, I don’t wake him up. If he’s awake I feed him, finish dinner and get ready for bed. I do feel bad that I’m away from him all day. But when he starts school I won’t work anymore. Then I'll be there to help him with his studies."


All photographs by Pieter ten Hoopen / Plan International / UNFPA. Interviews by  journalist and Plan International Sweden press officer Sofia Klemming Nordienskiöld.


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