By Lithalethemba Stwayi
The Health MEC for Gauteng Nomathemba Mokgethi recently , stated that “between April 2020 and March 2021, the province recorded 23 226 teenage pregnancies, with 934 girls being between the ages of 10 and 14 years giving birth”.
Moreover, a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) study released in 2015 found that “the life of a girl who falls pregnant at an early age changes negatively, and is less likely to change for the better, because her health and that of the baby are compromised, her educational and future employment prospects become blurred and her vulnerability to poverty multiplies”.
Bearing this in mind, the statistics are incredibly alarming because under the South African law, children under the age of 12 can’t legally consent to sex.
A person who engages in sexual activity with a child under 12 is committing rape. This then means that the pregnant children who are 10 and 11 years old as indicated in by Mokgethi were ultimately raped.
This may also be the case for most of those older than 12, but we do not have enough information to determine this.
There is a need for extensive research to understand the factors that contribute to the current scenario.
These statistics are also worrying in that they cover the period of April 2020 to March 2021 where South Africa was in and out of various levels of hard lockdown, and South Africans could not leave their homes unless it was for essential goods, work or school.
Even newspaper reports during this time indicated an increase in gender-based violence and violence against children - meaning that there is a high chance that some of these pregnant children are victims of sexual violence from within their homes.
South Africa has a terrible track record of not prosecuting rape and statutory rape matters. So it is important that the Department of Social Development provides all the children, but particularly those under the age of 12 years, who cannot legally consent to sex, with all the necessary support and counselling they may need because they are victims of rape and may eventually be called to testify in criminal proceedings.
There is a serious need to reflect on how we got here.
In 2014, statistics indicated that about 20 000 girls fell pregnant in the entire country. Now, 23 000-plus girls are pregnant in Gauteng alone and this is cause for concern.
These figures show that we are failing to protect our children against sexual violence and also to provide them with information and services that may assist them to make informed choices where they elect to engage in consensual sexual activity.
Since 2016, the Department of Basic Education has failed to provide the Final Learner Pregnancy Policy that includes measures on Comprehensive Sexuality Education, psychosocial support and ensure that the rights of pregnant learners are protected; while on the other hand the Department of Health is failing to make sexual reproductive health services accessible for adolescents.
The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and Another vs Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Another (2013) showed that: “Adolescents who discuss sex and sexual health with their parents openly are less likely to engage in sexual risk behaviour. Parent-child sexual communication that is open and includes specific information and discussion about risk and risk reduction strategies has been shown to have a positive influence on adolescent sexual behaviour.”
Also, that “comprehensive sex education has been found to be more effective than abstinence-only or no sex education in reducing risky sexual behaviour by young people, including delays in sexual debut, reductions in [the] number of sexual partners, and reductions in pregnancy and diagnosed STIs among youth. Abstinence-only education programmes have been found to have no significant impact on adolescents’ values or attitudes toward sexual activity.”
It is important for us as a country to curb the trend of teenage pregnancy with education and knowledge. It is also vital now more than ever to strengthen the comprehensive sexuality education in the home and at schools and teach both girls and boys about consent and what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour from adults as well as other children.
It has already been reported that 300 000 learners have dropped out of school during the pandemic.
It is likely that some of them may have dropped out due to falling pregnant.
The Constitutional Court already in 2013 maintained that pregnant learners have a right to continue to access education and to continue after giving birth without discrimination.
So it is imperative that the Department of Education and the Department of Social Development join hands to provide psychosocial support to the learners and assist them to continue with and return to school subsequent to giving birth.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.
**Lithalethemba Stwayi is an attorney at the Centre for Child law based at the University of Pretoria.