Teenage pregnancy: a problem or not?

‘Children bearing children’; ‘this teenage catastrophe’; ‘our greatest demographic disaster’; ‘the premier social evil of the Third World’ ... These are all ways in which teenage pregnancy has been described by academics. For many people, teenage pregnancy is a clear-cut issue.
It is a social problem that has negative consequences for the individual teenager, her child, her family of origin and the community in general, and therefore efforts need to be made to prevent it.

My interest in teenage pregnancy began eight years ago when the secondary school educators with whom I had been working defined teenage pregnancy as one of the major social problems that they faced. Thus began a journey in which I spent the major part of my research time on this topic. What I learnt along the way is that this is not a simple matter, that there are various views on the issue and that many of our assumptions and prejudices about

people and how they should behave are involved in our understanding of teenage pregnancy.

This is the first column in which I shall examine some of the debates and research-findings concerning teenage pregnancy. I believe that it is essential that secondary school educators become aware of the debates in this field as they are in the forefront in terms of prevention through school-based sexuality programmes and, with the new legislation, may have pregnant and mothering teenagers in their classes.

To start off with, let us examine why it is that teenage pregnancy is seen as a social problem. Firstly, there is the disruption of schooling. Research indicates that many pregnant teenagers do not return to school. Although it is now illegal for schools to turn pregnant teenagers away, this still occurs. Also, many pregnant teenagers stay away of their own accord, fearing ridicule or

rejection by peers. In some cases, families may require the teenagers to stay at home to take on their care-giving and domestic duties. There may simply be a change in emphasis in spending the family’s money, with school fees for pregnant teenagers being seen as a waste of money.

Some researchers have suggested, however, that many teenagers who fall pregnant have already dropped out of school owing either to failure at school or for economic reasons. In other words, the pregnancy did not disrupt the schooling, but rather came after the fact that schooling had already been abandoned. Because of the poor job prospects that face teenagers in many communities, these teenagers may see schooling as pointless. Becoming a mother appears as a real and useful alternative to school. Indeed, some researchers have described teenage pregnancy as a rational choice in circumstances where there is poor schooling, little chance of employment, and general disadvantage. They argue that having children gives adolescents some of the same benefits as completing schooling and getting a job. These benefits include being viewed as an adult with adult responsibilities.

Secondly, because fewer pregnant teenagers complete their schooling, it is argued that they will be financially worse off than their peers. However, there have been no South African studies that have checked whether this is true in the long term. In fact, there is some debate about whether early childbearing leads to

disadvantage or not. In the United States, for example, some researchers tracked down women they had researched as adolescent mothers some 17 years earlier and compared them to women who had had children later in life. They found that the mothers who had had babies when teenagers were, indeed, faring worse in terms of education and income than

mothers who had their children later. But they felt that the adolescent mothers were doing better than they had expected, with many improving their education and job prospects later in life.

This pattern of life-long learning is one that many South Africans are following and is one that is encouraged by the educational policies of South Africa. Some researchers have argued that it makes sense for women to have children early and to delay their education, because at an early age they are more likely to have more access to support from their families in terms of child-care. Feminists also point out that there is always a cost to women when having children, whether it is later or earlier in life. If a woman has children when older, she frequently has to give up her job or combine work with childrearing while finding the money to pay for child-care.

In the next column we shall visit some further reasons why teenage pregnancy is viewed as a problem, as well as some of

the criticism of these arguments. We shall look at the medical difficulties that face teenagers in pregnancy and birth, their mothering skills, and the contribution of teenage pregnancy to

population growth.

Dr Catriona MacLeod is an associate professor and head of the psychology department of the University of Fort Hare, East London

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