BABES IN ALMS
By age 18, more than 30% of South African teen girls are reported to have given birth at least once
‘In South Africa, 39% of 15- to 19-year-old girls have been pregnant at least once, the majority unplanned,’ says one study. Another says that in rural South Africa, 20% of pregnancies occur in adolescents aged 10 to 19.
Around the world, about 16 million births are recorded to girls aged 15 to 19, and two million births are recorded for girls under 15 annually.
Earlier this month, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) released pupil pregnancy figures – girls who become pregnant while at school – which seemed shockingly high. A report presented to Parliament by the DBE contained statistics that indicated that for the first quarter of 2021, about 36,000 pupils had given birth.
A study published in April this year reports research that shows “by the age of 18 years, more than 30% of teens have given birth at least once”.
Daily Maverick also found research showing 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…”.
The children of adolescents mostly face a hard life of deprivation and limited social and economic opportunities — if they survive birth. Newborns of adolescents are twice as likely to be stillborn or suffer neonatal death. Neonatal death or neonatal mortality is defined as the death of an infant within the first 28 days of life.
A common misconception, or maybe even an urban legend in South Africa is that young girls have babies as a means to receive the meagre (R460) child support grant (CSG) provided by the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa). A quick look at the PriceCheck website shows that a Pampers nappy pack, depending on the number and size of nappies, costs from R149 to R250, while a 1.8kg box of infant formula can cost from R209 to R249. Even if the baby was naked 24-7, the CSG is highly unlikely to provide a month’s worth of formula and nappies — not to mention all the other things a growing baby needs.
In an earlier article looking at the numbers of learner pregnancies, Daily Maverick spoke with Emily* a young woman who had fallen pregnant at the age of 16, while still at school. Emily was not a victim of abuse and had been in a relationship with her boyfriend when she fell pregnant. She is the child of a single mother who was very upset to learn that her daughter was pregnant but gave her full support, saying: “Well it is done now, and I love my grandchild — but let’s not do this again soon.”
Emily has not accessed the child grant and says while she knows a few other young women who became pregnant while at school — not the same school she is at, in Gauteng — she does not know any who planned the pregnancy or who accessed the child grant. She and the young women she references bear out an earlier Nacosa (Networking HIV & Aids Community of Southern Africa) report which quotes a Stats SA Demographic and Health survey: “most teen pregnancies are unplanned and only 20% of teens access the child grant.” The 2017 report also shows that poverty is a major factor, stating, “the areas in South Africa with the highest teenage pregnancy rates are also those with the highest poverty rates.”
This is because “Poverty can lead to transactional relationships and age disparate relationships…”, according to the report.
There are also factors of safety away from the home; young girls are often most at risk in their own homes and safer at school, as it keeps them out of reach of predators. In August this year, Save the Children reported: “Teen-pregnancies in South Africa jump 60% during Covid-19 pandemic”. The organisation said many girls were forced to drop out of school and became trapped in a cycle of poverty – some were also forced into early marriage.
A study published in 2019, that focused on rural adolescents in South Africa, concluded that “In rural South Africa, almost one in five pregnant women is an adolescent”.
According to the study, “Adolescent parenthood is a significant global social and health problem and is most common in Sub-Saharan Africa” and “Young age and poverty are also consistently associated with intimate partner violence (IPV) globally… one in five adolescent and adult mothers report interpersonal violence. IPV is a power issue; being young consistently confers less power within a relationship.”
The study found that “children of adolescent mothers tended to be significantly shorter and weighed less than children of adult mothers across their first 24 months of life.”
The children of adolescent mothers and the adolescent mothers themselves are socially and economically disadvantaged from the outset, not only in Africa. A UK study on teenage pregnancy — updated earlier this year — states that “the majority of teenage pregnancies are unplanned…” and “teenage pregnancy is associated with poorer outcomes for young parents and their children. Teenage mothers are less likely to finish their education and more likely to bring up their child alone and in poverty”.
This report also agrees with one of the South African reports that these young parents have “a higher risk of mental health issues than older mothers”.
The UK report, however, states that “infant mortality rates are 60% higher for babies born to teenage mothers…” and that children of teenagers “have an increased risk of living in poverty and are more likely to have accidents and behavioural problems” (infant mortality refers to deaths that occur in children under the age of one).
The biggest problems facing adolescent mothers is lack of support and stigmatisation, meaning many of these girls do not go back to school. The South African report focused on “…the relationship between parental efficacy and social support systems of single teen mothers…” and says this is because “these teen girls face various challenges related to stigma from peers, community members as well as their family…”.
The study also referred to how the males responsible for teen pregnancies seem to suffer no similar slings and arrows: “while the men who have impregnated these girls often deny responsibility.” The girl is left, literally, holding the baby.
In 2020, the UN reported that teenage pregnancy in Latin America cost the region’s governments billions of dollars a year in lost “earnings by mothers, tax revenue, health care and hospital costs.”
According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report “Teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school, do unpaid domestic work and in turn earn 24% less in wages” than women who become mothers aged 20+.
While the UNFPA report also indicated that “girls often get pregnant as a result of rape by relatives at home” and this is exacerbated by lockdowns where girls are literally trapped with their abusers, a UNFPA advisor commenting on the report also said that teenage pregnancy in that region is “driven by a lack of sex education in schools and lack of access to free birth control for girls”.
Just as in South Africa, where very few voices have called for the criminal prosecution of males who had sex with and impregnated girls as young as 10, the Latin American girlchild, too, seems to be on her own. What hope then for the children of these children? DM
* Not her real name.