Like all teenage girls, Lerato Moloi* (17) had dreams.
She wanted to finish high school and go to university so she could build a better life for herself. But her dreams were shattered when she became pregnant at the age of 15.
She grew up with a strict aunt who always told her not to rush into things like dating and having sex, but because Lerato wanted to be cool with her friends, she had sex to fit in. She now wishes she’d listened to her aunt and waited for the right time because her life isn’t what she’d hoped it would be – she is now a single parent.
Lerato is far from alone. Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 account for 11% of births worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. About 16 million girls in this age group become pregnant, and around one million girls under the age of 15 give birth.
South African government figures suggest that around 8% of pregnancies in the country are from teenage mothers. And teenage mothers account for 25% of maternal deaths.
THE PUSH FACTORS
Most health experts warn that having sex too young can cause both physical and emotional problems, and they recommend teens wait until they’re mature enough to have sex.
The timing will be different for each teen. The reasons behind teens taking the plunge too early vary, but the consequences are the same.
“There are different reasons why teens lose their virginity,” says Brenda Moletsane, a community worker and facilitator at The Family Life Centre. “These reasons include risk-taking behaviour, thinking they’re in love, media and social media influence, pressure from a partner, peer pressure to be cool and belong, and seeking attention.”
The government suggests a lack of education and parents viewing sexual intercourse as a taboo subject are also major contributing factors to teenage pregnancy. Whatever the reason, consent is essential and that’s why pressure of any kind is not a good enough reason to lose your virginity, says Jennifer Papers, a counselling social worker at Families South Africa (Famsa).
“Don’t be pressured into losing your virginity for whatever reason – be it peer pressure, the need for love or the promise of being in a relationship,” she says. “The right time is when you’re ready. It’s a personal decision. You must be emotionally mature enough to handle the consequences of becoming sexually active, so it’s a good idea to delay it as long as possible.”
RISKS AND CONSEQUENCES
Moletsane says having sex may seem cool, especially when you’re young and you want to fit in with your friends, but it comes with risks. These include: Damaging your image Sex can affect the way you feel about yourself or how others feel about you. “Some people may see you as a player,” Moletsane says.
“This is relevant for both sexes and this reputation can stay with you for a long period of time.” STDs “You can get infected with STDs and have to live with this for the rest of your life, long after you’ve broken up with your girlfriend or boyfriend,” she says.
These include herpes, chlamydia, genital warts (caused by human papillomavirus or HPV), gonorrhoea, syphilis, and HIV. pregnancy “This will change your life on every level as you will be responsible for raising a child,” she says. “It can even lead to you dropping out of school which will affect your future.”
“You’re more vulnerable once you’ve committed to someone who might not be as committed to you,” Moletsane warns.
“This can lead to heartbreak and depression.” Regret Papers says it’s common for teens to feel pressured into doing things they aren’t comfortable with. Moletsane stresses that if you decide to lose your virginity, there will be consequences to your decision. “You may regret breaking your vir ginity with the wrong person – maybe you had expectations they would be your life partner – or you may regret it if you later realise you weren’t ready.”
Experts agree it’s vital you equip yourself with enough knowledge to handle the experience. “Before teenagers can even start thinking about having sex and losing their virginity, they should learn how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and also be aware of all the birth control options open to them,” Papers says.
And on an emotional level, you should be able to trust the person you’re becoming sexually active with and ensure you’re in a committed relationship. “The person you decide to lose your virginity to should be someone whom you love and trust,” she adds.
“This shouldn’t be one-sided – the other person should be in love with you. And both parties must be in an agreement that this is what they both want to do.”
Your partner should be someone you can talk about difficult topics, such as feelings, other relationships or if the person has had a sexually transmitted infection.
*Not her real name