Teen pregnancy isn’t an issue that can simply be waved away with a presidential joke, writes Katharine Hall.
The president’s suggestion that babies be removed from the care of young mothers was clearly ludicrous and uninformed – presumably made in jest to build rapport with traditional leaders he was addressing in Parliament. But it provides an opportunity to clarify some common misconceptions.
First, there is the widespread belief that teenage pregnancy is an escalating problem. This is not true. Fewer teenagers have babies nowadays than they did in earlier times.
The Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town analysed birth history data across six large national household surveys spanning 25 years, and found that the proportion of teenagers who give birth before the age of 20 had decreased substantially: from 30 percent in 1984 to 23 percent in 2008.
Other studies have found the same: there was a decline in teenage pregnancy rates after the 1996 Census, and data from the Department of Health shows no increase in the proportion of young women under 19 presenting at ante-natal clinics.
There is, too, a huge difference between giving birth at the age of 19 and at the age of 15. Most “teen births” are to women aged 18 and 19, and these are not “children” in terms of the constitutional definition, although many have not yet completed school.
Child-bearing rates for younger teens have also declined over the years, according to the research unit’s study. In 2008, only 5 percent of births were to teenagers younger than 17, down from 13 percent in 1984. Teenagers in the current generation are less likely to give birth than those in their mothers or grandmothers’ generations.
On the other hand, more teenagers are attending school than was the case with previous generations, and this may explain why schools claim to be experiencing “higher teen pregnancy rates”.
This brings me to a second point.
In terms of the South African Schools Act, education is compulsory only up until the age of 15 or completion of Grade 9, whichever comes first. The act also permits pregnant teenagers to stay in school while they are pregnant, and to return after childbirth.
Attendance rates are high, in the upper 90 percents, during the compulsory schooling phase, after which there is a marked drop-off among both girls and boys. And teen pregnancy isn’t the most common reason for dropping out. Pupils also drop out because of the poor quality of education (many who drop out have had to repeat grades), or because of household poverty.
There can be no question of forcing young people to finish school if they are over 15, as the law does not provide for this. However, it is well established that those who do finish Grade 12 have an advantage, in that they’re more likely to find work and to earn higher wages than those who don’t have matric.
The returns are far greater for those who have completed further education. It is important to focus on ways to enable and support children to complete their schooling and further education.
A third point relates to social assistance for caregivers.
Extended families, particularly grandmothers, have played an important role in caring for the children of young mothers. It is true that women’s old-age pensions are often spent to the benefit of children in the household, but the pension kicks in only at 60 and most mothers of teenagers are not that old.
The child support grant is available as financial support for the caregivers of children, but is much lower in value: R330 a month, compared with R1 410 for an old age pension. Despite this small amount, numerous studies have confirmed that the money is generally “well-spent” - it is associated with better educational, nutritional and health outcomes for children.
The president’s reference to spending grants on hairdressers is unfortunate because it reiterates a popular “anti-poor” sentiment that policy makers in his government are trying to correct.
Finally, the idea of separating children from their mothers is inappropriate and unhelpful. Early childhood is a sensitive developmental period when it’s important for children to be with their mothers.
Quite apart from the proven benefits of breast-feeding, the process of bonding in the early years is important for the emotional and cognitive development of the child, as well as the mental health and parenting skills of the mother. Those working in the early childhood development sector emphasise the “first 1 000 days” – the nine months of pregnancy and first two years of life – as a critical time to provide services and support.
* Katharine Hall is a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.