Concern at teen ‘pregnancy pandemic’

At the age they should be playing with dolls, South African children are becoming mothers, changing nappies themselves, in a “pandemic of pregnancy“.

At the age they should be playing with dolls, South African children are becoming mothers, changing nappies themselves, in a “pandemic of pregnancy“.

Published Jan 7, 2024


Durban — Your daughter is likely to have a baby by the time she reaches grade four or five, according to figures released by the National Department of Health (NDoH).

While these children should still be playing with dolls, they are feeding real babies and changing nappies. Some never return to school. The statistics are staggering.

The NDoH said that between April 2020 and March 2023 almost 400 000 children were born to teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19.

During the same period, 11500 babies were born to girls aged 10 to 14 and 50000 teenage pregnancies were terminated.

The Commission for Gender Equality’s (CGE’s) Javu Baloyi blamed families for fuelling the crisis and called for tougher action against those responsible for what he terms a “pregnancy pandemic”.

Baloyi said the law should be strengthened to deal with this issue because in some cases the new mothers were not yet teenagers but victims of statutory rape, which their families refused to expose.

He said girls as young as nine were becoming mothers, but they declined to identify the fathers, mainly out of fear.

“Some because it’s rape, some because they were told to shut up by their families, some because they were threatened,” said Baloyi.

He said families were defending the perpetrators who were guilty of gender-based violence because they wanted to protect the “so-called breadwinners” despite the impact they had on the lives of these girls.

“They will accuse you, the person who is trying to help, of trying to dismantle families and also of putting dirty laundry in public,” he said.

About 1 000 babies are born at Prince Mshiyeni Hospital in uMlazi every month, the highest number in KwaZulu-Natal, and among the highest nationally, according to Dr Ray Maharaj, who heads the facility’s department of obstetrics and gynaecology.

He said that about 15% to 17% of these babies were born to teenage mothers of between 13 and 18.

“Teenage pregnancies add to the challenges facing state hospitals, particularly maternity units, as ideally they should have been prevented,” Maharaj said.

He said it predisposed young mothers to complications in the prenatal, intrapartum (during delivery) and post-partum (after delivery) periods.

These complications are widespread and include risks for medical conditions like high blood pressure, and caesarean section and breastfeeding challenges.

Occasionally, social challenges led to young mothers giving up their babies for adoption and sometimes the family was unaware of the pregnancy as girls tried to conceal it, or the family may refuse to accept it, Maharaj said.

Equally concerning, he said, was an increasing rate of repeat pregnancies among teenagers rising from 17% to 19% between 2016 and 2019.

NDoH spokesperson Foster Mohale said all public health facilities recorded teenage pregnancies, and that the department worked with other departments and organisations to intensify sexual and reproductive health awareness campaigns to educate young people about early sexual activity and unprotected sex as well as the availability of family planning services at health facilities.

“We have established dedicated areas in public clinics for young people to go to seek health services so they don’t join the same waiting areas with the rest of the clients. They get served by young healthcare workers of their age so they can be open enough to share their challenges and tell of their health needs,” Mohale said.

The Department of Social Development’s Lumka Oliphant said there were numerous reasons for teenage pregnancies including rape, peer pressure, lack of information and socio-economic issues.

“It is not a criminal offence for teenagers to have consensual sex with each other, and in most cases, young boys too need assistance to deal with being a teenage father. It is a criminal offence for an adult to have sex with a child and these should be reported to the police,” said Oliphant.

Oliphant said the belief that girls became pregnant to access money from the state was unfounded.

“Instead, Sassa still struggles with getting mothers to access the Child Support Grant (CSG) when the children are between the ages of 0 and 2 years. If this was the case, they would immediately access this money. Study after study shows that the CSG is mainly used for food and basic necessities for children,” she said.

In 2023, the CGE did a study in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo to determine why girls dropped out of school during pregnancy and after giving birth, saying that research suggested only a third of them ever returned.

It identified several factors including access, use of contraception services, minimal or lack of parental involvement, statutory rape, dating older men, teacher-pupil sexual relations and substance abuse.

According to the CGE report, the 2007 Pregnant Learner Management Policy stipulated that pupils should not return to school for up to two years after giving birth, but it was rescinded in 2021 and replaced with a policy that obliged schools to put measures in place for retaining pregnant pupils and reintegrating them into the system after giving birth. However, many schools seemed to be unaware of this policy.

“Despite South Africa establishing an enabling policy environment to retain pregnant pupils and adolescent mothers in school, policy prescripts were not fully known, understood or applied seamlessly across provinces. Schools in provinces such as the Eastern Cape continued to enforce unconstitutional policies that required pregnant pupils to be accompanied by a caretaker to unburden teachers from providing medical support in emergencies,” the report said.

KwaZulu-Natal police this week said there was no law making it compulsory to report teenage pregnancy, unless rape was suspected.

Police spokesperson Colonel Robert Netshiunda said: “Teenage pregnancy is not a crime, unless in a situation where the mother-to-be is under the age of 16. By law, a 16-year-old girl can consent to sex with an age mate. However, a case of statutory rape should be opened with the police if an adult male impregnates a woman of 16 years and below.”

Independent on Saturday