SOUTH African lockdowns and other restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus crisis have led to a rise in teenage pregnancies in Africa, with aid organizations warning of a regression in girls’ rights to education and health.
The number of children born to teen mothers in South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, has jumped 60% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Save the Children.
New figures from the Gauteng Department of Health show that more than 23,000 girls aged under 18 gave birth between April 2020 and March 2021 – of which 934 were aged under 14 – compared to 14,577 girls aged 19 and under having babies in the same period a year earlier.
Gauteng is home to more than 15 million people, a quarter of South Africa’s population, and includes the country’s largest city, Johannesburg, and its administrative capital, Pretoria.
In the Northern Cape, more than 5 000 schoolgirls have fallen pregnant between April 2020 and June this year.
The provincial Education Department has raised concerns about the alarming number of pregnant teenagers saying some are as young as ten.
MEC Zolile Monakali said the provincial education department has now invested in life skill programmes to support learners.
“When the pandemic started up to the end of June this year, we recorded 5015 pregnant cases of girls between the ages of ten and nineteen and of those 154 is accounted for by girls between the ages of ten and fourteen that is a big concern for our education system,” said Monakali.
“Currently in the Northern Cape Department of Education, we are attending to five cases which involve educators and learners. When educators are found guilty in such cases, it is a dismissible offence, we even go so far as to contact the South African Council of Educators to scrap their names from the educators roll.”
In August this year, The Soul City Institute for Social Justice said it’s not surprised by the figures that close to a thousand young girls in Gauteng gave birth between March this year and April last year.
The Institute says although the COVID-19 pandemic might have put the issue in the spotlight, this is not a new problem. The Gauteng Health Department recorded over 23 000 teenage pregnancies between April 2020 and March 2021, with 934 being girls aged between 10 and 14.
Soul City Institute CEO Phinah Kodisang says this is a reflection of how the country continues to fail children.
“For us as Soul City Institute it’s not a shock. We know this has been an ongoing problem. The numbers have been escalating probably because of COVID-19. But this problem has been a standing problem. And because we do not call it what it is, it’s statutory rape when a 10 or 14-year-old is having sex. Because the age of consent in South Africa is 16 years.”
Early pregnancy and motherhood in South Africa forces many girls to drop out of school, traps many in a cycle of poverty dependant on public assistance, and leaves many stigmatised by society for being teenage mothers or forced into early marriage.
It also creates a greater risk in terms of maternal complications resulting in low survival rates of babies and forces many girls to prematurely take on an adult role which they are not emotionally or physically prepared for. This has devastating social and economic costs.
Marumo Sekgobela, Save the Children South Africa’s Health and Nutrition Thematic Manager, said:
“Watching a child turn into a mother is heart-breaking. Children need to be children, not birthing them. It’s particularly devastating to learn that many of the girls who gave birth last year were barely teenagers.
“The global pandemic risks being a time of irreversible setbacks and lost progress for girls. Unless we act fast and decisively, the impact on girls’ futures – and on all our futures – will be devastating.
“There has never been a more important time to empower teenagers to take control of their sexual health and stay safe. Save the Children calls on the Government of South Africa and Gauteng province to ensure that adolescents, regardless of gender, have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services. We also call on families, communities, religious & traditional leaders to support reproductive health rights of teenagers. It is time that we dismantle the barriers to accessing services.”
Unintended pregnancy among adolescents requires holistic approaches that build girl’s empowerment, help them make decisions about their lives, including around sexual and reproductive health, engages the support of men and boys in their lives, and offers them real opportunities so that motherhood is not seen as their only destiny.
A key factor contributing to the sexual and reproductive health risks that adolescents face in South Africa is lack of access to Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) as well as access to affordable, and appropriate health services.
In South Africa, Save the Children implements an integrated and holistic programme that aims to support children, adolescents and young people to stay in school, stay healthy, and achieve their full potential.
Last Friday, the Department of Basic Education said scores of young girls between the ages of 10 and 19 years old are infected with HIV every week.
This was revealed during the department’s state of Teenage pregnancy and Comprehensive Sexuality report presented to the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on Tuesday.
The report has revealed that teenage pregnancy increased by 30% higher than the annual average between April 2020 and March 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Deputy director-general Dr Granville Whittle said poverty, rape, gaps in the Comprehensive Sexuality Education, and school dropouts are among the culprits.
“Girls are four times more likely to be impacted or affected by HIV compared to boys. 46% of sexual abuse complaints in South Africa are children, 15.1% of all the girls experience rape, sexual harassment, verbal abuse or bullying in schools.”
In the first quarter of 2021, just over 35 000 pregnancies were recorded among young girls aged between 15 and 19 years old.
1053 pregnancies were recorded among children aged between 10 and 14 years old.
These numbers were increased by the countrywide lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Whittle told Parliament that the numbers are alarming and need immediate action and solutions.
Additional reporting by Reliefweb