Sexual violence driving high pregnancy rate among 10- to 19-year-olds in South Africa
The recently reported high numbers of teenage pregnancies and births in South Africa are not new. The Department of Basic Education this week reported 36,000 learner pregnancies and births in the first quarter of 2021. This does not include another 10,000 learners that statistically could have had pregnancies that did not lead to birth.
If as many as 20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, we may safely extrapolate that a reported 36,000 births to 36,000 school-going teenagers/children — assuming no multiple births — means there were almost 45,000 learners who started out pregnant but just over 7,000 learners did not carry to term. That is just for the first quarter of 2021.
An article on research carried out in South Africa and published in September 2020, which has as its main focus the question ‘what is the link between sexual violence and unintended pregnancy among AGYW (adolescent girls and young women)?’ states that:
“Unintended pregnancy was higher among survivors of sexual violence (54.4%) compared to those who never experienced sexual abuse (34.3%). In the multivariable analysis, sexual violence was consistently and robustly associated with increased odds of having an unintended pregnancy…”
This is the bigger picture of learner pregnancy in South Africa, the fact that most of these pregnancies arise out of forced or coerced sexual acts.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in a January 2020 adolescent pregnancy fact sheet, states that “Every year, an estimated 21 million girls aged 15-19 years in developing regions become pregnant and approximately 12 million of them give birth. At least 777,000 girls under 15 years give birth each year in developing regions.”
They also report that “complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15 — 19-year-old girls globally,” and that “babies of adolescent mothers face higher risks of low birth weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions.”
Many girls who fall pregnant while in school also drop out — the Department of Basic Education (DBE) says one in three do not come back to school.
Daily Maverick spoke to *Emily who was 16 and in grade 11 when she fell pregnant (she had been in a relationship). She said when she realised that she was pregnant, “I felt like a disappointment to my family.”
Emily also said that her teachers were supportive of her decision to stay in school, but that her classmates were a different story as they made nasty comments: “I used to hate going to school because I’d be depressed and cry every day…” but “once I found out that I was pregnant I knew I had no choice but to finish school so that I’ll be able to look after my baby.”
Emily is ‘one of the lucky ones’ in that she did not fall pregnant due to violence or coercion and also because she felt supported by her teachers. She is currently working on finishing her matric year.
In many instances, the social taboos that existed a decade or more ago around being pregnant at school, persist. And despite laws regulating the fact that children cannot be denied an education due to pregnancy, there are schools that suspend pregnant students. A study by the Central University of Technology looks at ‘learner pregnancy in secondary schools in South Africa’ and asks “Have attitudes and perceptions of teachers changed?”
According to the study, in which a focus group of teachers was interviewed
According to the study, that interviewed a focus group of teachers aged between 27 and 52, teachers are not willing to have pregnant girls in class: “…teachers interviewed demonstrated their unwillingness to adhere to the law. As a result, pregnant learners are advised or coerced to stay at home for the remainder of their pregnancy as the school environment is not tolerant towards them.”
This study on teacher attitudes also showed that “female learners are discriminated against and male learners who impregnate female learners are exonerated from taking the responsibility.” The study further quoted teachers saying “the classroom should not be turned into a maternity ward” and “it is the responsibility of the pregnant female learner… not that of teachers…”
This illustrates how the pregnant learner is often victimised in multiple ways — first by a predator, then teachers, classmates and the community: “It is a taboo in many communities for a school-going child to fall pregnant while still being a learner.”
In the US, there has been a decline in teen pregnancies, but this is seen as due to increased information around, and access to, contraception. However, “being the victim of child abuse” is seen as one of the leading factors in teenage pregnancies.
There also needs to be general mindfulness amongst media and other organisations in how they use language — a 10-year-old child cannot be a ‘mom’ and usually only has a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be a mother. To call such a young girl a mom is to imply that she ‘knew’ what she was doing and was a willing participant in getting pregnant.
Plan International is a not for profit organisation that supports child education and safety and is “committed to tackling adolescent pregnancy especially among younger adolescents (10-14) who are most at risk and yet often overlooked”. The fact of the matter is that adolescent girls often do not have their periods, so may not fall pregnant, but are still victim to sexual predators.
Adolescent girls are also often physically “not ready to be pregnant. Their bodies are not mature” as Dr Frederick Gonzalez said almost 10 years ago when the story of 10-year-old giving birth in Colombia made worldwide news headlines.
The UKZN College of Law and Management Studies at the end of August 2021 held a two-day colloquium on GBV “in commemoration of women’s month” with the topic “Eradicating Gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment: Are we doing enough?”
Member of the KZN legislature and Minority Front leader, Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi, referenced a KZN plan to deal with femicide and gender-based violence, saying “the approaches to tackle these are symptomatic, not preventative… ‘are we doing enough?’”
Not according to National Department of Health statistics that indicate from March 2017 to April 2021 that just over 14,000 girls aged 10-14 were pregnant.
The age of sexual consent in South Africa is 16, which makes any sexual act with a person younger than that a criminal act. There are also a number of laws relating to sexual offences involving minors — yet these are infrequently raised when reporting on the result (child pregnancy) of the offence.
If the lens changes, the problem looks different and solutions might more easily come into view. DM
*Not her real name.