Maverick Citizen


Is teenage pregnancy statutory rape? No … and yes — an urgent call for nuance

Is teenage pregnancy statutory rape? No … and yes — an urgent call for nuance
The author writes that the petition calling for a policy to report teenage pregnancy to the police is shocking and that the reality is much more nuanced and requires a more thoughtful response. (Image: iStock)

Young people already feel disconnected from the formal sexuality education messages and alienated from reproductive healthcare. A crass ‘teenage pregnancy = statutory rape’ cry will simply exacerbate this. An open letter to Minister of Health Joe Phaahla.

Dear Minister Phaahla,

A petition addressed to you is currently being circulated. It calls for a policy obliging healthcare professionals to report “teenage pregnancy” to the police. In this letter, we outline what within the petition is problematic and we advocate for nuanced approaches to youth’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The petition starts dramatically, referencing a paper published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) as follows: “According to a paper titled Teenage births and pregnancies in South Africa, 2017-2021 — a reflection of a troubled country: over 12,000 children between the ages of 10-14 years fell pregnant in South Africa”.

This gross number is meant to shock and dismay the reading public. The signatories neglect to mention, however, that this number spans the full five-year period. 

Importantly, though, gross numbers are never useful in trying to understand a phenomenon. This is why fertility is usually spoken of in relation to 1,000 of a population. The SAMJ paper indicates that the deliveries to people between 10 and 14 years increased from 1.1 per 1,000 population (in that age category) in 2017 to 1.5 per 1,000 population in 2021. These numbers are more meaningful and could be seen as cause for concern.

This should lead to the question, “What exactly is of concern?” The authors of the SAMJ paper conclude that the increases “may be due to disruption of health and school services with decreased access to these as a result of Covid-19”. As is widely known, during Covid-19 lockdowns, reproductive services were severely compromised with, inter alia, contraceptive stock-outs and lack of access to services such as abortion. The authors’ conclusion points succinctly to the arguments made by health activists: social conditions need to be attended to so as to promote health and well-being. 

The signatories of the petition proceed to indicate the following with reference to the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) 2021 Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools: “The policy makes pregnancy by a minor a notifiable incident, where the school is obligated to notify authorities of the pregnancy”.

This is not true. It is the Sexual Offences Act, with which the policy aligns itself, that governs the reporting of statutory rape.

It is also not true that “pregnancy by a minor” automatically represents statutory rape. There are two very important points that need to be remembered in terms of the legal definition of statutory rape: (1) it concerns people below the age of 16, not minors (who legally are below the age of 18); (2) consensual sex between people below the age of 16 or where the age difference is no more than two years is NOT statutory rape. The exact wording of the act is replicated below:

“(1) A person (‘A’) who commits an act of sexual penetration with a child (‘B’) who is 12 years of age or older but under the age of 16 years is, despite the consent of B to the commission of such an act, guilty of the offence of having committed an act of consensual sexual penetration with a child, unless A, at the time of the alleged commission of such an act, was (a) 12 years of age or older but under the age of 16 years; or (b) either 16 or 17 years of age and the age difference between A and B was not more than two years.”

Admittedly the DBE Policy is a little ambiguous. It states, “if the pregnant learner is under the age of 16, this would require mandatory reporting to the SAPS and entails civil or criminal proceedings against the male partner if he is over the age of 16”.

Does this mean that all pregnant learners under 16 years old should be reported, with only those with a partner age difference being prosecuted? Or does it mean that only those pregnant learners with male partners who are over 16 years old should be reported? It is not clear. The former interpretation is problematic in terms of the Sexual Offences Act, as indicated in clause (b) cited above.

The signatories then go on to petition you, Minister Phaahla, to institute “a similar policy, that makes pregnancy by a minor a notifiable incident in the healthcare sector”. Of course, this is not necessary because the Sexual Offences Act already states that “a person who has knowledge that a sexual offence has been committed against a child must report such knowledge immediately to a police official”.  This would obviously include healthcare providers.

Negative policy effects

The call “teenage pregnancy = statutory rape” has appeared in other spaces as well, most notably recent consultative forums set up by the Department of Social Development in the lead-up to a framework on Sexual and Reproductive Justice. We warn against this clarion call as it does little to acknowledge the complexities of youth sexualities and reproduction.

We know that stigma and shame are significant barriers to people seeking healthcare. For example, young people may avoid going to contraception clinics for fear of healthcare provider judgement and stigma.

Pregnant young people tend to report late and irregularly for antenatal care, and to hide their pregnancies from family and school authorities. As a result, obstetric outcomes for people below 20 years of age remain an area of concern.

A fear of being reported to the police will add a further barrier to young pregnant people reporting to the clinic or informing their teachers or family, thereby compromising their own and their foetuses’ or infants’ health. Additionally, young people may avoid seeking safe and legal terminations of pregnancy. Already it is estimated that about half of abortions are performed illegally outside designated sites.

Young people already feel disconnected from the formal sexuality education messages and alienated from reproductive healthcare. A crass “teenage pregnancy = statutory rape” cry will simply exacerbate this. There is a need to affirm teenagers as they mature into adults in a complex world. Greater understanding of affirmative consent and bodily autonomy is needed as part of young people’s evolving capacities. 

Having said that, we have sympathy for the signatories in their outrage at sexual coercion and sexual violence, especially where young people are involved. Our rates of gender-based violence are unacceptably high, and frustration at the country’s seeming inability to tackle it is widespread.

The Sexual Offences Act is correct in highlighting age differences as a cause for concern regarding sexual violence. Researchers have known for some time now that an age difference in sexual partners increases the likelihood of unwanted reproduction amongst minors.

These relationships are generally unequal and may involve various levels of sexual coercion, sexual violence, or transactional sex (where young women are enticed into sexual relationships in exchange for goods or money). In a context of poverty and an educational system that fails learners, young teenagers may feel that there is little option but to engage in transactional relationships or to submit to coercive or violent relationships. Some even support their families through the transactional sex in which they engage.

In addition, in several of our studies, pregnant participants speak of anticipating and experiencing paternity denial and partner abandonment — to the extent that it is almost normalised.

We agree that these kinds of unequal, exploitive or violent relationships require disruption. But we know from Discursive Psychology that language matters. It shapes understandings, relationships and actions. The unnuanced narrative of “teenage pregnancy = statutory rape” as outlined in the petition should change to “adult male impregnation of teenagers below 16 = statutory rape”. This change of language places the spotlight on exploitative men, where it belongs.

The Sexual Offences Act places the responsibility for reporting statutory rape with “a person with knowledge”. Clearly, this must apply to all persons in public service positions. But it is not enough. Where statutory rape has taken place, though, these men should be reported by other men who take responsibility for addressing toxic masculinities and patriarchal practices. This is where programmes such as MenEngage are important.

We need to do better. The bottom line is that there are already firm reporting obligations where a crime of rape or statutory rape has occurred. But where no crime has occurred, it is dangerous to routinely involve the blunt instrument of criminal law to try to address a complex social situation. DM

Catriona Ida Macleod is SARChI Chair of Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction and Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Rhodes University. She is editor-in-chief of Feminism & Psychology and author of the multi-award winning book, “Adolescence’, pregnancy, and abortion: Constructing a threat of degeneration” (Routledge, 2011).

Deevia Bhana is the DSI/NRF South African Research Chair in Gender and Childhood Sexuality at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her research examines how gender and sexuality come to matter in the young life course. She is involved in several research projects, including “The Teenage Pregnancy Project”.

Nolwazi Mkhwanazi is Professor of Anthropology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria. She is co-editor of two books: Young families: Gender, sexuality and care (HSRC Press 2017) and Connected Lives: Families, households, health and care in South Africa (HSRC press 2020).

Sisa Ngabaza is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape. She has published extensively on sexuality education and school-age pregnancy in the South African context.

Dr Jess Rucell is Expert Adviser, Gender Justice, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. She is Executive Secretary of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition – South Africa.

Marion Stevens has an academic background as a midwife, in medical anthropology and in public and development management and has worked in sexual and reproductive justice for over 30 years. She is the outgoing founding director of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition in South Africa and currently sits on the Gender Advisory Panel of the World Health Organisation.


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