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Effective mechanisms needed to address teenage pregnancy ‘plague’

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Picture: Lebohang Mashiloane/African News Agency (ANA) Archives- South Africa recorded an increase in the rate of teenage pregnancies in some parts of the country between 2018 and 2019 and more recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, says the writer.

By Dr Zanele Zuma

The prevalence of teenage pregnancy remains a health concern in global communities and South Africa is no exception.

Pregnancies not only have adverse health risks for adolescent mothers and their babies – these problems can persist into the next generation. For example, girls who become pregnant often drop out of school, limiting their future economic opportunities and perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

Early pregnancies carry adverse health associated risks for both unborn babies and their teenage mothers. These risks often lead to school dropout, limited economic opportunities in the future, a perpetuated cycle of poverty, which makes them susceptible to gender-based violence (GBV) at a young age.

Even though international statistics on teenage pregnancy are on the decline to 11.6 %, developing countries are still on the rise. Even before the pandemic, in South Africa, 16% of young women aged 15-19 had begun childbearing. The figure ranges between 11% in urban areas and 19% in rural areas.

Apt to note is that, South Africa recorded an increase in the rate of teenage pregnancies in some parts of the country between 2018 and 2019 and more recently during the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, children born to teen mothers in Gauteng was recorded at 60% since the genesis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Statistics from the Gauteng Department of Health show that more than 23 000 girls below the age of 18 gave birth between April 2020 and March 2021with an alarming figure of 934 under the age of 14 – compared to 14 577 girls aged 19 having babies in the same period a year earlier. Some scholars argue that these figures were precipitated partly due to the difficulty in accessing contraceptives, which was greater during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Despite the challenges with accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare services for this vulnerable age group the author argues that the root cause of this problem is not being tackled and this is a cause for concern. In 2021, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) reported that 91 000 teenagers were pregnant and these pregnancies occurred when children were supposedly under the supervision of their parents and guardians during the Covid-19 lockdown period. The million-dollar question is what could have gone wrong during lockdown? Who is responsible for these pregnancies?

Effective mechanisms to address teenage pregnancy

No single mechanism is a one-size fit all measure in addressing the scourge of teenage pregnancy. Just like all other pandemics, teenage pregnancy is not only a departmental problem but it is a societal issue.

There is thus a compelling need for policies that address the scourge of teenage pregnancies to integrate all stakeholders and particularly to involve teenagers themselves who are personally affected. It would be meaningless to devise strategies of addressing the plight of teenage pregnancy and yet excluding them in in such species. All teenagers (boys and girls) need to be personally involved in dialogues to curb the scourge of the high rise of teenage pregnancies.

An integration of forces from various departments such as the Department of Social Development, the Department of Health and law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, all community structures such as religious denominations, political structures, traditional structures, different youth structures, affiliated associations such as the taxi industry, and business leaders amongst others should be party to such dialogues.

The majority of these structures, given a platform can come up with solutions to addressing the plight that faces the community. Measures to alleviate teenage pregnancy should start by addressing contextual factors of learners from their family background to their personal encounters.

What can be done to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book? It is unfortunate that safety of the lives of teenage girls is compromised by the very structures that are hoped to assist with addressing the plight of teenage pregnancies in South Africa.

There seems to be no safer space where teenage girls are guaranteed safety and protection of their vulnerability. The media platforms have been reporting cases of sexual abuse of teenage girls by their teachers at school, relatives at home, pastors at church, and many other instances.

The economic state of teenage pupils has further exacerbated the plague of girl’s sexual debut as they are lured to the so-called “soft life” by “sugar daddies”, (men old enough to be their fathers) in exchange of sexual pleasure. These instances make it even difficult for perpetrators to be brought to book.

In an opening statement in January 2022, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, raised a concern about the statistics of pregnancies of young girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in South African schools. As such, she reported that the DBE had gazetted the policy for Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in schools.

Through this policy there envisaged a continuous engagement with other sectors to strengthen the prevention of early and unintended pregnancies. Again, interventions such as the Let’s Talk allowed for the opening of safe spaces for intergenerational dialogue on how the department could best deal with the issue of teenage pregnancy as a collective. It is naive of the department to assume that a pandemic such as teenage pregnancy can be resolved in such spaces alone. After creating such spaces, what would be next?

The problem of teenage pregnancies in South Africa is deeper than one would anticipate. The major concern is that the supposedly parents/teachers or guardians are implicated in most cases of teenage pregnancies thus making it even more difficult to address the scourge. Some teenagers are unable to disclose who impregnated them, as they fear for their safety as well as of their family members.

Therefore, in such cases, we need more than dialogue spaces to arrive at the crux of the problem.

In alleviating the scourge of early pregnancy amongst teenagers, measures and policies such as those addressing contextual factors through the voices of the victims are hoped to have an impact in addressing the plight of teenage pregnancy in South Africa. However, there seems to be no balance in inclusion with these policies or activities, which may be exacerbating the scourge.

For example, the Let’s Talk policy /framework in the prevention of early and unintended Pregnancies Ministerial Dialogues do not cover the wide spectrum of the education sector, particularly those learners from the poverty stricken rural settings. The neglect of some affected parts may exacerbate rather than curb the problem at hand.

The main challenge with most of the measures adopted to address issues that affect learners are adopted from well-established countries with good economies and stable politics. A very close example is the Outcome Based Education (OBE) policy that although it was a good method failed in South Africa. OBE failed in South Africa mainly because of the unequal distribution of resources at schools across demographics, unstable economies and the country’s unstable politics that affect negatively on education acquisition. This policy succeeded in countries such as Japan and China because they have a stable school system, disciplined pupils and enough resources for all pupils.

Furthermore, whilst girl-child pregnancy poses a huge frustration to the teenage and the community, the subsequent dropout of girls from schools is a major setback for the girl child as opportunities for them are already limited at an early age. Conditions are far more devastating to girls in rural settings where development and transformation are staggering. Apt to note is that, rural settings are so much absorbed by cultural practices that are pronounced in gender norms amongst other factors.

Unfortunately, policies do not accommodate the diverse nature of the South African populace. Teenage pregnancy mostly affects the black population with records of post-apartheid effects of the socio-economic dispensation that was only privilege to the white minority.

Accepting the fact that the education system is based on an uneven footing should serve as a point of departure in an attempt to address the plight of teenage pregnancy.

Zanele Zuma is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Public Health at Wits University.