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25 April 2017 10:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista Deborah Ewing

Falling what? Let’s be grown-up about teen pregnancy

  • Deborah Ewing
    DeborahEwing0916-copy.jpg
    Deborah Ewing

    Deborah Ewing is a Durban-based writer, researcher and facilitator. Her work focuses on the links between HIV/AIDS, gender, identity and marginalisation, interests arising from a long history in the children’s rights sector. Deborah writes books for children on a range of social issues, coordinates research for the sexual and reproductive health rights programme of the AIDS Foundation of South Africa and is co-pilot of the new SexRightsAfrica.net regional learning platform. She holds a BA Hons in Politics and Theology from Bristol University. 

So if I hear one more person talk about girls “falling” pregnant, I am going to stick my foot out and trip them up, to knock the meaning of the word “fall” into their head.

I am not in the habit of quoting pastors (or tripping people up) but to paraphrase a fiercely compassonate preacher, “It is impossible for a girl to fall pregnant unless she stumbles onto an erect penis’.”

In fact,”‘pregnancy fell on her” might be more accurate.

Yes, I know it is a figure of speech but our speech, in all languages, is littered with euphemisms that translate directly into “girls and women are to blame for all the violence done to them”.

When I was growing up, decades ago, the term “getting knocked up” was current. It didn’t so much imply blame as careless misfortune but there was no notion of cause and effect. Unplanned (or unsanctioned) pregnancy was a calamity that befell girls who put themselves into situations judged by others to be avoidable. Knocked up as in the sense of being knocked down by a car while not using a pedestrian crossing, I suppose.

Terms like falling pregnant enter the language and hunker down in the damp dark spaces of our collective subconscious like sexually transmitted infections. They reflect the cultural, religious and political denial of reality. They enable people in power (as presidents, priests, teachers, fathers and brothers, and mothers) to make edicts they ignore and to condemn others for the consequences.

To overhear the ongoing national hysteria about teenage pregnancy, one would think there were 12-year-old girls queuing at sperm banks, or running lucrative pyramid schemes using the child support grant as start-up capital.

Yes, young girls and boys do engage in consensual, enjoyable, unprotected sex. And yes, some girls become pregnant because the two young people thought it was a negligible risk worth taking. That is life, that is youth, and that is also a consequence of the pitiful sex education we give our children, bombarding them with facts about HIV/AIDS before they know the difference between an ovum and an orgasm.

To some young girls, the prospect of having a child doesn’t seem as catastrophic as the other prospects they face. For a teenager in a loveless home, neglected or exposed to violence or alcoholism, and with only the spectre of unemployment on the doorstep, an unplanned pregnancy with a caring partner is not necessarily an unmitigated crisis.

These young people will probably be fine if we just stop judging them and help them juggle childhood, child-raising and finding sustainably productive labour. People who ever had unprotected sex while young and feared or discovered that you were pregnant or had made someone pregnant, close your eyes for a moment and think about how you were supported, or rejected.

But I am not talking about the children who succumb to hormones, young love or the need to escape. I am talking about the children who are raped, abused, pushed into sexual “relationships” with older men, married off, trafficked, or abducted. Those who are offered money for sex by adults who regard food and school fees as luxuries that children should pay for with their childhood.

These children and young women do not “fall pregnant”; they are held down, violated and impregnated. They are the victims of crime. International laws and conventions that almost all governments have ratified promise protection and redress – and those same governments report on all the steps they have taken to fulfil those promises. In many cases, national legislation and policy have been enacted to uphold children’s rights. Yet, as in so many other areas of human rights, there is a yawning dissonance between word and deed.

Societies around the world police girls’ sexuality and make them responsible for the moral codes by which we like to think we live. The levels of unplanned and unwanted early pregnancy, especially in impoverished communities, are an indictment of our failure to uphold the rights of children, not of children’s failure to uphold the opinions of adults. The consequences are disastrous, if not fatal, for children - and for their children.

Girls are expected to stay virgins until (the inevitable) marriage. Since they are not supposed to be having sex, the twisted logic goes, they do not need contraceptives. If a child becomes pregnant, it may be considered punishment for her “bad behaviour”. If a girl seeks an abortion, whatever the reason, she should do it secretly, in shame, at the risk of her life - unless the abortion is required to save the reputation of a parent or a community leader. When a young girl gives birth, she can expect public outrage and judgement; in South Africa, this will include the assumption that she deliberately “fell” pregnant in order to benefit from the R380 child support grant.

Very little is heard about the role or responsibility of men, beyond sensationalism around sugar daddies, or lately blessers. Both these terms imply benevolence on the part of an older man, providing sweet things or blessings to a girl in a consensual sexual relationship. The correct term, whatever the arrangement, if the girl is under 16, is statutory rape. If the man is a teacher, a relative, a community leader, or other person in authority, he is an abuser of power as well as children. If this is revealed through the pregnancy of a child, it is he, not the child, who should be called to account.

If the father is a child, a student or an unemployed youth, then the adults in his life need to teach him responsibility by setting the example of acknowledging and supporting the mother of his baby.

Euphemisms mask uncomfortable realities. Worse, they deflect blame and distract us from addressing the causes of serious problems. And those causes rest largely with the grown-ups. DM

  • Deborah Ewing
    DeborahEwing0916-copy.jpg
    Deborah Ewing

    Deborah Ewing is a Durban-based writer, researcher and facilitator. Her work focuses on the links between HIV/AIDS, gender, identity and marginalisation, interests arising from a long history in the children’s rights sector. Deborah writes books for children on a range of social issues, coordinates research for the sexual and reproductive health rights programme of the AIDS Foundation of South Africa and is co-pilot of the new SexRightsAfrica.net regional learning platform. She holds a BA Hons in Politics and Theology from Bristol University. 

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