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Government must help avert early pregnancy crisis

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Picture Credit: Jennifer Bruce/African News Agency (ANA) Archives – Amnesty International South Africa has been calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government to play their part in combating the crisis of teen pregnancy, say the writers.

By Cassandra Dorasamy and Genevieve Quintal

There has been a significant increase in the number of children and adolescents falling pregnant and giving birth from as young as 10 years old, known as “early pregnancy”.

The Free State Department of Health has reportedly revealed that 150 girls aged 10-14 have given birth in the past five months, which has once again sounded the alarm on the crisis of early pregnancy in youth. This is a major cause for concern.

A study published in the South African Medical Journal earlier this year showed a 48.7% increase in the number of births to girls aged 10-14 between April 2017 and September 2021. Between April 2020 and March 2021, some 934 girls between 10 and 14 years old gave birth in Gauteng alone. It is also important to note that these are the number of births, not the number of pregnancies, bearing in mind some of these pregnancies ended in abortions and miscarriages.

Early pregnancy can have a number of social, health and economic impacts. It contributes to school drop-out rates with some girls not returning to school in the late stages of pregnancy or after they have given birth.

We see a lot of social consequences too, including stigma, rejection, violence by family and community members, and early marriage in some instances. Early pregnancy can also be a health risk, with maternal conditions being the leading cause of death and disability among 15- to 19-year-olds globally. But what are the drivers of early pregnancy and what are some of the solutions?

Early pregnancy is likely to occur in marginalised communities where pregnancies are driven by poverty, lack of education and employment opportunities, and a lack of empowerment of children and adolescents to make informed decisions.

Poor access to sexual and reproductive health services and information is also one of the key drivers. A 2012 study by Mchunu, Peltzer, Tutshana, and Seutlwadi found that of the 19% of the respondents in the survey who had fallen pregnant as adolescents, 55.5% reported falling pregnant the first time because they did not understand the risks involved in what they were doing or did not understand how pregnancy happens.

Sexual and reproductive health rights, which are enshrined in the South African Constitution, mean that you should be able to make decisions about your body and get accurate information about these issues, be able to access sexual and reproductive health services such as contraception and abortion, decide if you want to have children and how many, and choose if you want to marry.

While this is a societal issue, the State has a responsibility to create an enabling environment for people to make autonomous and informed decisions. There needs to be effective, age-appropriate and good quality comprehensive sex education and life skills programmes delivered by well-trained teachers.

Research shows that improved knowledge of HIV and pregnancy prevention decreases risk-taking, and improves attitudes about using condoms. Gender-based violence is another contributing factor to early pregnancies and must be tackled as one of the root causes.

One in three children under the age of 18 experienced sexual abuse. South African law clearly states that children below the age of 12 do not have the capacity to consent to sexual activity. Sexual intercourse with a child below the age of 12 is always considered rape.

Even if the child says “yes”, they are unable to give consent at that age. Consensual sexual intercourse may occur between two children who are at least 12 years old and under the age of 16. Sixteen- to 17-year-olds may only have consensual sex with persons no more than two years younger than them.

This means that even though a child between the ages of 12 and 15 can consent, if there is more than a two-year age difference, and one is 16 or over, the latter will be guilty of statutory rape. In an event where the pregnancy occurs as a result of rape or statutory rape – sex with a minor – cases must be reported to the SAPS.

The criminal justice system, including the SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority, must respond in a timeous, efficient and effective manner to these cases.

Amnesty International South Africa has been calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government to play their part in combating the crisis of early pregnancy.

We encourage everyone to play their role in raising awareness about the issue and to take action – calling on the government to ensure that there is real change so our young girls are protected and empowered with information to make informed decisions about their bodies.

Dorasamy and Quintal are from Amnesty International South Africa.