/ 31 October 2022

Teenage mothers must be supported, not ostracised

Teenage Pregnancy In The Philippines
Young women struggling with unplanned pregnancies — often victims of sexual violence and toxic masculinity — need help. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Every answer she gave was a short whisper, using as few words as she possibly could. She is not shy, but deeply troubled. She is 14 years old, yet six months pregnant. Her favourite pastime is watching cartoons but these days she sleeps all day because her thoughts are too much for her to bear. Let’s call her Linda*.

I met Linda while visiting Dlalanathi, a Pietermaritzburg-based organisation that trains community caregivers to support pregnant women, particularly those experiencing psychological distress.  More often than not, these are teenage girls.  

Dlalanathi provides training to a variety of community-based organisations and the community caregiver who introduced me to Linda is from an organisation called Ethembeni, based in Mpophomeni, a township outside Pietermaritzburg. Ethembeni has long supported pregnant women in the area through outreach services for TB and HIV, as well as providing psychosocial support. Community caregivers here are trained to use a relationship-based framework to support mothers-to-be like Linda. This approach is aptly termed Ibhayi Lengane (the baby’s blanket in English).  

The term Ibhayi Lengane can be used both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, the community caregiver is a blanket of support for the mother, and during implementation, an actual blanket is used by the mother to physically warm and protect her child. The blanket symbolises the supportive relationship between the community caregiver and the mother-to-be and anticipates the bonds that must form between mother and infant. 

This embracing approach is seen as a catalyst for social change, particularly in contexts of adversity. Community workers find that an exchange of knowledge and skills alone,  without a relationship-centred approach, has little effect. The key is that the supporter or home visitor should take the same sensitive and caring approach towards the mother that they expect a mother to provide to her child. 

A national study published in the SA Medical Journal in 2022 shows that pregnancies among 10 to 14-year-olds increased by 48.7% between 2017 and 2021. Birth rates in largely rural provinces, such as Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape, were also much higher than in more urbanised provinces, such as the Western Cape and Gauteng. The majority of these pregnancies were due to rape, statutory rape or sexual coercion.  

There appear to be several reasons for the increase over the past five years, including injectable contraceptives being out of stock; the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns; insufficiently trained life orientation teachers; heightened sexual violence and the lack of employment opportunities for young women. 

Initiatives such as Ibhayi Lengane are effective in supporting young mothers to help them regain their confidence and rebuild fractured relationships with their families, if needed. It also ensures love and care for the new mother, and her child, as she returns to school. However, Ibhayi Lengane is not a preventative intervention, it provides support after conception.  

Interventions aimed at preventing unplanned pregnancy in adolescence should include activities to build greater personal agency and knowledge. Comprehensive sexuality education, which has been part of the curriculum in South African schools since 2000, helps learners “build an understanding of concepts, content, values and attitudes around sexuality, sexual behaviour” as well as lead “safe and healthy lives”. Its home is in life orientation, but it could be reinforced in other subjects, such as biology and economics. 

Comprehensive sexuality education aims to provide information about sex in ways that empower children to make informed decisions as well as access credible information from verified sources.

However, schools cannot do it alone. Households and communities need to reflect on how we react to pregnancies among school-going girls. It can be expected that a parent will be upset and disappointed upon receiving news of an unplanned pregnancy. However, this reaction can have harmful effects on the  mother and child. The time between inception and two years, known as the first 1 000 days, is critical in the development trajectory of a child. 

It is imperative for the mother to be in a healthy emotional and physical state to take care of her young baby in this development window. A depressed mother, who does not exercise, eat nutritious foods or visit the clinic for regular check-ups, might struggle to take this opportunity for the development of her child and her own well-being. Many mothers will lament the difficulty of pregnancy even with comprehensive support from friends and family – imagine how difficult it is without that support.  

It is not uncommon for a person experiencing an unplanned or unintended pregnancy to be kicked out of her home, like Linda was.

We need to understand that young girls are at the very bottom of the pyramid of power in South Africa. Even the efforts described above to build agency and choice ring hollow in the face of so much sexual violence and toxic masculinity. 

It is not uncommon for the father of the newborn child to be one of the mother’s school teachers. When we cluck at the shame of the pregnant teenager, we are complicit in her oppression. Our outrage should be directed at the failures of our system to protect our children. 

Kwanda Ndoda is an innovation manager at the DG Murray Trust. His work supports interventions to keep young children in South Africa on track in various aspects of their academic, physical and psychological development by the time they reach grade 4.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.