Last Friday, this newspaper published a report about an aggrieved mother and grandmother who is searching for answers. Her son’s reputed wife had fallen ill and died just months after what appeared to be a normal childbirth experience, and the health authorities had apparently given no diagnosis of her illness nor explanation for her death, according to her. The young woman, Sunita Vandyke, was just 22 years old and her death had left six children, one of them a small baby, without a mother.

From the reputed husband’s mother, Phyllis Carter, came the information that Ms Vandyke had suffered what was believed to be a stroke, while she was washing clothes one day. Ms Carter also revealed that after Ms Vandyke was taken to the hospital, doctors had referred her to the eye clinic where they were told that one of her eyes had to be removed. She was sent home to recover after this was done, fell ill again and subsequently died.

From Ms Carter’s account, it was clear that there was a rift with Ms Vandyke’s relatives as she did not have access to Ms Vandyke’s death certificate, which would no doubt make interesting reading, and had not been invited to the funeral. But apart from that, there is a lot that is wrong with this picture and it by no means starts with Ms Vandyke’s illness.

Her death, unfortunate as it was, has once again brought into sharp focus a serious issue that has been having a devastating impact on a very vulnerable group. That issue is teenage pregnancy and that group is young girls. Considerable lip service is constantly paid to girls’ well-being with glib phrases as no one who truly believes that children are the future could choose to not concentrate as much resources as necessary on reversing the country’s high teenage pregnancy rate. The last known statistics for Guyana as per UNICEF, had it placed as having “the second highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in both the Caribbean and South America, with 97 out of every 1000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 giving birth.”

What has been revealed about Ms Vandyke indicates that she was just 14 years old when she began living with her reputed husband, which, as we all know, constituted a crime. There was no indication as to how old she was at the time of her first pregnancy, but over the next eight years she gave birth six times. Ms Carter claimed that Ms Vandyke’s relatives had never accepted her son and had always been at odds with him and given the circumstances outlined above that is understandable.

In some instances, pregnant teenagers or teen mothers have the opportunity to complete their education. This is even more possible today under the National Policy for the Reintegration of Adolescent Mothers into the Formal School System which came into force last year and mandates public schools to provide a safe environment for teenage mothers to continue their schooling. This has a bearing on them being able to access proper health care and eventually economic opportunities. It can halt or at least hinder the cycle of teen pregnancy, poverty, discrimination and stigma and can also contribute to the strides being made towards gender equality.

Ms Vandyke did not have any of these opportunities. Unfortunately, she became the ‘wife’ of the man who violated her and then, quite frankly, a virtual baby-making machine. A recent study conducted by a group of scientists at Duke University in the US has found that extreme athletes and pregnant women – the unlikeliest of cohorts – reach and even push the ultimate limit of human endurance. The study, according to a report published by the BBC, said that “pregnant women were endurance specialists, living at nearly the limit of what the human body can cope with.” It also warns that it is detrimental to do this in the long term. This is known and is one of the reasons that women are urged to space their children – to allow their bodies to recover from pregnancy and childbirth – along with preserving their mental well-being. Six children in eight years is beyond the limit of human endurance and Ms Vandyke clearly did not have a saviour.

Since all of the facts are not known at this point, let us say that it is possible that her parents or relatives might have gone to bat for her back when she was 14. Perhaps they even reported the matter to the authorities, but there is no evidence of this. She must have attended school at some point, right? Was there no teacher or school welfare officer invested enough to not allow her to slip through the cracks? And while we ponder that question, we might as well ask ourselves how many more like her have fallen and are slipping even today. 

It is unfortunate that Ms Vandyke had to die for her plight to be brought to the public’s attention. And while there should be some distributed, this column is by no means an attempt to lay blame on anyone for Ms Vandyke’s death, but a clarion call to all to pay more attention to vulnerable girls. We can’t really celebrate some girls while others flounder at the edge of the abyss, can we? All girls must matter.

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