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Teenage moms face a litany of ills

Caring for a baby who was planned and is living in a stable home environment can be stressful at the best of times. Caring for a baby when you are a child yourself — struggling to finish school and make ends meet and facing the social stigma an illegitimate birth still brings in many communities — means that breaking the cycle of poverty becomes an insurmountable obstacle for many young girls.

Teenage pregnancy in South Africa is a massive problem. To put it into perspective: 40% of all pregnancies in the country involve girls younger than 19 and about 35% of all girls will have given birth before they reached that age. Of these pregnancies, 7% are among 15 to 16-year-olds and the remaining 93% is among girls aged between 16 and 19 years.

It is a situation that, in many cases, ends a girl’s education and any prospects for a decent career.

Several reasons are cited for the extremely high birth rates among teenagers in South Africa: the lack of sex education and the unavailability of contraceptives, as well as the stigma they carry because of conservative social mores.

Then there are the high rates of drug and alcohol consumption among teenagers that undoubtedly result in riskier behaviour. Easy access to pornography on cellphones is also an aggravating factor.

Peer pressure is undoubtedly a major factor, but this is hardly unique to South Africa. It is more of an adolescent right of passage that has little to do with socioeconomic factors. After all, the United States, the richest nation on earth, has the world’s highest rates of teenage pregnancies. However, a shocking revelation that is unique to South Africa is sexual violence.

Local studies have shown that between 11% and 20% of teenage pregnancies are the result of rape and 60% of teenage mothers claim to have been coerced by men who were, on average, six years older than them.

Moreover, a study conducted by the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa indicated that one in five teenage fathers admitted to forcing girls to have sex with them; 30% of these forced sexual encounters resulted in pregnancy.

More young men have multiple sexual partners
Alarmingly, the same study indicated that more than one-third of the young men surveyed had more than three sexual partners, thus greatly increasing the risk of HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as syphilis. So what is the remedy?

Abortion? Even though we have, by far, the most liberal abortion laws on the continent, stigma is a massive problem. According to a study by the Medical Research Council, the biggest inhibiting factor for teenagers seeking termination of pregnancies in the public health sector was the abusive behaviour directed at them by nursing staff.

Abstinence? This was promoted with evangelical zeal by George W Bush throughout his eight years in the White House. All it achieved was the US’s sharpest increase in teen pregnancies and STDs.

Criminalising underage sex? Many of those involved in adolescent health argue that this has to be the quickest way to discourage teenagers from accessing sexual and reproductive health services they sorely need. Besides, it would mean that one-third of all the country’s teenagers should be charged with a criminal offence.

Public health experts recommend improving life skills, including sex and relationship education. They also recommend providing access to contraceptives, especially condoms, because they are effective against HIV, STDs and pregnancy.

The government has admitted that sex education is inadequate and it wants to improve the curriculum. It also planned to distribute contraceptives at high schools, but this programme was shelved because of objections from religious groups, certain non-governmental organisations and some school principals.

Teenage pregnancy will be the topic on Bonitas House Call on February 10 at 9am on SABC2

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