OPINION | Manala Makua: Teen pregnancies - society needs to assist govt in battling this scourge

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There was a huge increase in teen pregnancies during the pandemic, writes the author.
There was a huge increase in teen pregnancies during the pandemic, writes the author.

South Africa witnessed a 60% increase in its teenage pregnancy rate amid the pandemic. Manala Makua examines what measures are being put in place to address the issue and what society should do. 

Motherhood by choice can be an incredible and rewarding experience in a woman's life.

The same is not the case with teenage pregnancies or teenage motherhood.

According to the World Health Organisation, 21 million girls aged 15–19 years become pregnant every year globally. Approximately 12 million of them give birth – making teenage pregnancy a global concern that needs urgent attention.

Unfortunately, South Africa is home to many such young mothers who deserve to be children and not give birth to them.

In 2019, nearly 130,000 babies were delivered to girls aged 10 to 19 in public health facilities in South Africa which further increased to an additional 136,386 babies in 2020. The country has recorded an unacceptably high rate of teenage pregnancies in just the first quarter of 2021, with more than 36,000 babies delivered to girls of the same age group (already marking one-third of the annual average – 30.47%).

Multifaceted problem

The staggering statistics exhibit that now more than ever; we need to address two crucial issues - why are teenage pregnancies high in South Africa, and how can we work towards reducing the number and saving the lives of our young girls?

In South Africa, teenage pregnancy is a multifaceted problem with several socio-economic factors contributing to the high numbers.

Some of these include – poverty, early marriage, gender-based violence (GBV), lack the agency or autonomy over their bodies, substance abuse and most importantly, inadequate sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) information coupled with misconceptions around contraceptives. Besides, adolescents tend to engage in risky sexual activities that put them at risk for unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STI's), and HIV. Further, the stigma around discussing sex, contraceptives, unwanted/unplanned pregnancies, and GBV only adds to the already existing long list of 'whys.'

READ | Opinion: Boitumelo Masipa - Failing to look after our young girls will be our biggest regret

The risks associated with teenage pregnancy have consequences starting at childbirth and following both mother and child over the life span. It has serious health consequences where children are more likely to be born pre-term, have lower birth weight and have higher neonatal mortality.

At the same time, mothers undergo postpartum depression and are less likely to initiate breastfeeding.

Often maternal complications result in low survival rates of babies and force many girls to prematurely take on an adult role that they are not emotionally or physically prepared for.

On the other side, with around 120 000 learners falling pregnant every year, only one-third of them return to school after giving birth— a significant factor contributing to socio-economic disadvantage among youth and an endless cycle of poverty. 

60% increase in teenage pregnanices during pandemic

The landscape around teenage pregnancies in South Africa had only seen a slight improvement with the ongoing awareness programmes and government interventions when the country, along with the global, was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic followed by the lockdown, which reversed the progress made thus far.

South Africa witnessed a 60% increase in its teenage pregnancy rate amid the pandemic, causing permanent damage to the lives of many young South African women. It is unfortunate how the 'whys of teenage pregnancy,' specifically GBV exacerbated during the lockdown.

READ | Melanie Verwoerd: Teenage pregnancy and statutory rape - more must be done to put offenders in jail

The country saw a 37% spike in GBV complaints in the first week of total lockdown. It can be deduced that school closures and containment measures led to increased teen pregnancy, sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and forced/early marriages in many parts of the country. 

Despite these challenges, the National Department of Health (NDoH) is determined to address the issue. It is working closely with the SRHR partners to advocate for attention to adolescents and their sexual and reproductive health and rights. We have taken several initiatives to reduce teenage pregnancies in the country.

Everyone must get on board 

The most crucial one is the introduction of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. It is critical as it empowers adolescents to identify and report sexual abuse, prevent bullying, deal with negative peer pressure, helps them learn about SRHR, HIV and treatment measures, and most importantly, where to seek help in cases of rape, contraceptive need, etc. 

Further, the health department is prioritising the implementation of the Teenage Pregnancy Policy (from January 2022) to allow female pregnant learners to continue with their education, as do male learners who impregnate them. Additionally, the department has initiated Adolescent and Youth Health Services and Youth Zone training and is engaging SRHR partners across the country to raise awareness around teenage pregnancies so that every decision taken by a girl and a woman is by choice and not compulsion. 

READ | Bathabile Dlamini: Teenage pregnancY - A complex problem where girls are not just statistics

However, it is critical to note that it is not only the government's responsibility, but all of society needs to tackle this matter. We need to curb the scourge of teen pregnancies if we want to turn the tide and save our children, especially girls.

We need a collaborative effort to integrate our efforts with the partners and youth champions (especially men) who will be at the forefront of preventing adolescent pregnancy through innovative grassroots-level initiatives.

Community sensitisation, CSE and ensuring girls enrol and stay in schools could reduce adolescent pregnancy rates. To save our girls' lives, we need to combine strong leadership, management, and perseverance to achieve what is achievable. 

- Dr Manala Makua is Chief Director of women's, maternal and reproductive health at the National Department of Health 

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