Addressing the National House of Traditional Leaders on March 10, President Jacob Zuma repeated shocking comments he first made in 2009, saying teenage mothers should be separated from their babies until they finished their schooling.
“They must be … forced to go to school far away,” he was quoted as saying by the South African Press Association. “They must be educated by government until they are empowered. Take them to Robben Island … make them sit there and study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.”
Apart from going against his government’s own policy framework, the president’s comments are of deep concern to many for various reasons, not least of which is that he assumes all teenage pregnancies are unwanted. Many families change their minds during the pregnancy or after the baby is born.
Indeed, sending young mothers “far away” would be a violation of their human rights. Several sections of the Constitution would not allow this. Everything must be done in the best interests of the child; separating parents and their children has never been in anyone’s best interest.
Zuma’s remarks stigmatise teenage mothers and suggest teenage pregnancy be likened to a crime.
His comments suggest the government can interfere with parents’ rights to raise their children, which it cannot, unless the child is threatened. Severing bonds between parents and children would result in a weakening of the social fabric.
In a country with a serious HIV burden, Zuma could have mentioned the risks of unprotected sex.
He seems to blame young women entirely for pregnancy, failing to recognise many factors and the role of men in causing pregnancy. Gender-based violence, poor access to contraceptives and difficulties with using services for the termination of pregnancy, as well as the stigmatisation of young women’s sexuality, all contribute to South Africa’s high rates of teen pregnancy.
A 2013 study by Flanagan and others noted several reasons for the nonuse of contraceptives among young women, including a “desire to prove womanhood, fear of adult bias, concern for confidentiality and power imbalance in relationships”.
A more appropriate response would be that suggested by Tebogo Mothiba and Maria Maputle in their paper based on a study of a Limpopo district, in which they recommend effective, appropriate preventative measures to counter unwanted pregnancies, including providing information and contraceptive measures through youth-friendly clinics.
Adults should also talk about sex to their sons and daughters.
Finally, programmes for males should be made available. “Boys and young men have information needs and anxieties about sex and relationships,” Mothiba and Maputle say. Zuma’s comments place importance on education at a time when schools are failing our young people.
In defence of Zuma’s statements, the presidency this week said his remarks were directed at both teenage mothers and fathers.
Still, Zuma contradicts his government’s efforts: a few weeks ago, the government launched an adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights framework strategy.
In 2012, commenting on women being single, Zuma said “that in itself is a problem in society. It’s a distortion. You must have kids.” At the time, Kubi Rama of Gender Links responded: “He’s pigeonholing women into the traditional role of motherhood, nurturing and marriage.”
It would seem Zuma is reaping the results of such statements. After all, one of the driving factors in teen pregnancy is the desire of young women to prove their fertility.
The government, the religious sector, civil society and business have invested significant time and money to destigmatise teenage mothers (and fathers) and to educate, inform and create quality discussions about the issue. Zuma’s remarks serve only to derail the progress being made.
Phillipa Tucker is a cofounder of, and a researcher for, Aids Accountability International. This article includes the views of several civil society organisations consulted after the president’s comments