On Child Protection: Teenage Pregnancy In South Africa, A Double Pandemic

There have been several discussions in South Africa on the increase in teenage
pregnancies in the past year, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
These issues are not new, but the growing trend is what is worrisome.

In a report released by Stats SA in late 2021, South Africa recorded almost 35,000
teenage mothers aged 17 years and younger in 2020 alone. “Watching a child turn
into a mother is heart-breaking. Children need to be children, not birthing them”, says
Dr Benny Obayi, Director of Child Welfare South Africa.

The month of May is considered child protection month. This is the period that
government agencies and stakeholders shine a spotlight on issues of concern with
regards to the protection of children. In particular, Child Protection Week is
commemorated the last week of May. This year’s focus is on the challenges of
teenage pregnancy.

Teenage pregnancy comes with multiple challenges. The first concern is that a child
is saddled with the responsibility of looking after another child. Secondly, if the child
is from a financially challenged home, it deepens the cycle of poverty as the scarce
resource would be split to take care of an additional child. The third concern is that
children having unprotected sex means they are exposed to sexually transmitted
infections, including the risk of contracting HIV.

Furthermore, teenage pregnancy creates a greater risk in terms of maternal
complications resulting in low survival rates of babies. It forces many girls to
prematurely take on an adult role that they are not emotionally or physically prepared
for. This has devastating social and economic costs. An increase in the adolescent
pregnancy rate also strongly suggests challenges with accessing sexual and
reproductive healthcare services for the age group. This is a cause for concern.

Teenage pregnancy in South Africa is driven by many factors including: gender
inequalities; gendered expectations of how teenage boys and girls should act; sexual
taboos (for girls) and sexual permissiveness (for boys); poverty; poor access to
contraceptives and termination of pregnancies; inaccurate and inconsistent
contraceptive use; judgmental attitudes of many health care workers; high levels of
gender-based violence; and poor sex education.

Given these multiple and complex drivers of teenage pregnancy, it is imperative that
South Africa re-focuses on addressing teenage pregnancy at both an individual and
structural level. Responses should focus on a number of areas including: gender
equality programmes across communities and schools; comprehensive sex
education to include elements of gender awareness, gender equality, women’s rights
etc; clinics which are adequately staffed, accessible and supplied with a full range of
contraceptive options; appropriately trained health care workers (on the range of

modern contraceptives, the need for dual protection and reducing ‘moralising’
attitudes), as well as scaled up, accessible, appropriate and acceptable teen user-
friendly family planning initiatives.

“Addressing teenage pregnancy is a battle that requires the active involvement of all
stakeholders, if it is to be well fought. These stakeholders include government
departments, child protection organisations; the research community, the religious
sector, community leaders and more importantly, parents and the young people
themselves”, says Dr Obayi.

Pregnancy among teenagers requires holistic approaches that empowers girls, helps
them make decisions about their lives, including on sexual and reproductive health,
engages the support of men and boys, and offers them real opportunities so that
motherhood is not seen as their only destiny.

As we commemorate this year’s Child Protection Week in a few days, there is a
need for all the stakeholders to start engaging at different levels. Parents, teachers,
community leaders, everyone should be involved in the discussion to find a solution
that empowers young girls. Empowerment can help them make quality decisions
about their lives, including around sexual and reproductive health.

We need to start showing support and rallying behind every cause to stop teenage
pregnancy. With the growing cases, now is the time to start making a difference.

CWSA supports the implementation of laws, policies, regulations and services that
protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse, and that respond to and
support victims. The organisation also supports the training of social services
professionals and works with partners and stakeholders to roll out, services for
children that are victims of abuse and exploitation.

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