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Rape epidemic turns girls into mothers

Published Aug 6, 2022

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Wendy Jasson Da Costa, Karishma Dipa, Norman Cloete and Sameer Naik

South Africa’s rape epidemic has turned girls as young as 10 into mothers, and 60% of the time the fathers cannot be identified.

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The number of girls aged between 10 and 14 years who gave birth between April 2017 and September 2021 increased by 48.7%, according to a report by Amnesty International SA this week.

Amnesty International SA’s executive director, Shenilla Mohamed, said: “It is important to note that these are the number of births, not the number of pregnancies – bearing in mind some pregnancies ended in abortions and miscarriages.”

The organisation said this week it would run a campaign with True Love to highlight this crisis.

Save Our Children health and nutrition programme manager Marumo Sekgobela said they noted a massive spike in child pregnancies in 2020/21 after South Africa went into a hard lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sekgobela said at the time there was limited access to health facilities and schools, which usually offered a protective environment for young people.

“We also have to look at the issue of gender-based violence (GBV). These children are between 10 and 14, so somewhere, somehow there was a violation and these cases are not always reported.”

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Sekgobela said they suspected that many of the pregnancies were as a result of rape because at that age children often didn’t even know what had happened to them.

He said in 60% of the cases no one knew who had impregnated the girls.

“We don’t know if it’s other children, which I doubt, or if it’s older boys and men,” he said.

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Sekgobela said there was usually a generational gap in terms of relationships in South Africa, where it was not uncommon for 17-year-olds to date 22-year-old adults.

He said given the sharp rise in child and teenage pregnancies during lockdown, it appeared most of the violations happened at home or within their neighbourhoods.

Sex with a child below the age of 12 is always regarded as rape, even if they say yes. And depending on the circumstances and ages, sex involving older teenagers could also be considered statutory rape.

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Of the 1 764 babies born in South Africa on January 1 this year, 65 were born to adolescent girls, of whom the youngest was 13. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 934 girls between 10 and 14 years old gave birth in Gauteng alone.

In June, Minister of Police Bheki Cele said that 10 818 people had been raped between January and March this year and almost half of the cases had occurred in the homes of the victims or offenders.

The director of The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Shaheda Omar, said the responsibility of addressing the nation’s early-pregnancy crisis lay in educating young boys and men.

“Males simply can’t be out of the equation when it comes to early pregnancies and they must be part of the solution.”

Omar said GBV was also a contributing factor.

“Young girls are not fully aware of their rights in a relationship and are not always able to negotiate their rights and responsibilities.

“Many often just agree with their partner as a way of seeking approval and submit to their partner’s demands even though they don’t want to.”

She also believed young girls and adolescents were not always capable of making informed decisions and the ripple effect of early pregnancies could be dire.

“Many drop out of school, which perpetuates a cycle of poverty and impoverishment,” Omar said. “They suffer from psychological issues like low self-esteem and face stigma and disappointment from their families while feeling like there is no hope for them in their future.”

Omar said that, in the past, young mothers faced harsh, punitive and judgmental attitudes and ended up fending for themselves.

But now she has seen a deeper understanding of the plight of teenage mothers.

“Support is now more empowering and in the best interest of children.”

Omar also urged for education on various levels to reduce early pregnancies.

“This must be at home, at school, at religious gatherings and in the community at large.”

Sekgobela agreed and said traditional leaders as well as religious leaders should also be part of the solution.

Luke Lamprecht, head of advocacy for Women and Men Against Child Abuse, said child pregnancies were a massive concern “because it shows the failure of our reproductive health and child protection services, because young women are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation”.

He said despite the enormous amount of money and time spent on prevention, early pregnancies continued to rocket.

Lamprecht said the failure to introduce a proper sexual curriculum in schools was one of the contributing factors.

“There was massive backlash from Freedom of Religion in South Africa when it was suggested that we introduce comprehensive sexual education in school.”

No alternative was suggested, even though it was known that the best way to combat poor sexual health was to introduce a sexual health curriculum, Lamprecht said.

“However, we don’t have enough skilled educators to do it, with most of our teachers being older people from a generation who aren’t used to speaking about such topics.”

Lamprecht said the idea that when you educate children about sex you make them have sex was not proven by any research anywhere in the world.

“Actually, the opposite is true. When young people can think about these things, they can make better decisions, because a lot of pregnancies are around naivety.”

He said nurses were “judgy” when young people wanted contraceptives and when people came for terminations.

“And that's because of a range of personal beliefs that are not professional nor scientific and are scattered and unhelpful. We need to rectify that.”

The Gauteng Department of Social Development (DSD) said as the custodian of the Children’s Act, it had the mandate to protect and develop poor and vulnerable communities and was obligated to be part of the solution in alleviating the crisis of teenage pregnancies.

Spokesperson Feziwe Ndwayana said DSD had several programmes aimed at curbing the crisis of teenage pregnancy and other social ills.

“However, the department contends the responsibility insofar as teenage pregnancies are concerned cuts across several departments.”

She said a co-ordinated response that appreciated the role of all stakeholders was essential and they needed to establish a common way forward to ensure greater success in curbing teenage pregnancies.

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