'A positive approach to sex': Zero Dropout Campaign director weighs in on teenage pregnancy

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"Creating a safe space for young women to report abuse and access support services is crucial." Photo: Getty Images
"Creating a safe space for young women to report abuse and access support services is crucial." Photo: Getty Images

News24 reported that the Gauteng province recorded a total of 23 226 teenage pregnancies in the year between March 2020 and April 2021.

Many of these teenagers were still at school and ended up dropping out as a result of the pregnancy and lack of support. 

With this in mind, Parent24 chatted to Merle Mansfield, project director of the Zero Dropout Campaign, about what could be done to deal with this problem.

Mansfield has worked in the civil society space for over a decade, and her focus is mainly on education and philanthropy.

Read: 'Turning lemons into lemonade': Mom with troubled childhood opens an NPO to help pregnant teens finish school

'Support them'

She told us "Teenage moms are less likely to return to school when their immediate environments do not offer support for them to manage both the responsibility of being a parent and that of being a learner."

She added, "In spaces where young women are supported to access their education during and post-pregnancy, they are less likely to drop out permanently."

"Opportunities to continue to learn at home; support at home to dedicate time for scholastic demands and supportive adults all serve as protective factors for young women to return to school," she shared.

Mansfield shared an example of a real-life story of a young girl who dropped out of school due to peer pressure and other factors.

Noluthando's story

Noluthando* left school in 2018 due to a combination of peer pressure and a range of complex push-out and pull-out factors in her life. While at home, she became a mother at the age of 15.

Luckily, Noluthando was able to turn her situation around. With the help of a supportive mentor, she resumed her schooling with the goal of building a better life for her daughter. 

"After I had my daughter, the Check and Connect mentor helped me get back to school. She would call me almost everyday and encourage me to come back to school. She would tell me to come back, change how I behave and focus on my studies so I can be somebody in the future," she says.

Must read: 'Sex is a part of life': Sex education not prioritised due to lockdown

Access to health services

"We need to empower young people to access information and resources without stigma and fear," Mansfield stresses.

"Youth-friendly sexual health and reproductive health services need to be commonplace in communities to ensure young people can make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health," she adds.

Mansfield believes that including health and help-seeking behaviour as key focus areas for sexual and reproductive health promotion for youth in South Africa is key to remove shame and stigma to encourage a positive approach to sexual health wellbeing.

Also read: The need for Comprehensive Sexuality Education 'greater than ever', but detractors remain concerned

Contraceptives 

We then asked Mansfield if she thought that having contraceptives available through the school system would be a good idea to help with the issue of teenage pregnancy.

She told us that creating safe spaces for open dialogue about sex and sexuality for young people is crucial.

Mansfield says, "Condoms are currently distributed in several public institutions in South Africa for free. However, providing the resource without empowering young people to use it is not effective."

She adds that young women must build their agency to assert condom use with sexual partners.

Similarly, "young men need to dispel misinformation about condom use and be empowered to protect their partners and themselves during sexual encounters," she says.

She says, "these factors matter, so the distribution of information and resources without facilitating dialogue and intentional education of sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing is not going to be effective in isolation."

"Distribution of condoms must be coupled by access to health services that are non-discriminatory so that when young people exercise their right to engage in health-seeking behaviour, they are not met with stigma," shared Mansfield.

She says that this is particularly important in South Africa, where sexual violence is rife.

"Creating safe spaces for young women to report abuse and access support services is crucial," she says.

"To institutionalise a positive approach to sex and sexuality, we need young people to be empowered to make informed decisions and engage in practical and adaptive coping skills in their decision-making."

*Names changed

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