Pupil & Pregnant


Issue No.102011

Words: Maja Vadum Larsen

Every year in South Africa, there are many young female learners who end their school days for good. However, it is not because they have completed their studies, but because they are pregnant. The shocking question is how does a community deal with girls as young as ten falling pregnant?

‘I leave the child at home and go to my boyfriend, another boyfriend, not the father of the child. My mother stays with my child because she knows that if I go to that boyfriend, I will come home with money and that money will help us buy food for my child and the family.’ These are the words recalled by Life Orientation teacher Mrs Mayeki regarding a young mother at Kuyasa Primary School, Khayelitsha.

‘In most of those cases, there is no one working in the family so they will depend on that money.’ During her teaching experience in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, Mayeki admitted that this was not the first incident and explained how many of these girls have sex with older men for money.

Dr David Harrison, former CEO of the South African HIV prevention organisation Love Life, explored this problem further in his article Three ways to reduce teen pregnancy in South Africa. He explained that young girls can be ‘unemployed, insecure, therefore acquiescence to immediate economic pressures and social expectations seem rational and for her own good. This compliance is very likely to take the form of sexual partnership with a man who can provide physical and material “protection”; but the protection is often in exchange for unprotected sex. Despite the general expression of optimism about their long-term future, the social and individual sexual behaviour of young people is shaped by the constraints of day-to-day reality.’

Therefore, it seems that dealing with teenage pregnancy in South Africa often means dealing with poverty. And 17 years after apartheid, dealing with poverty still means dealing with racial segregation.

Poverty and racial segregation

School teachers recall learners as young as ten years old falling pregnant every year, which frequently ends their education.Photo: courtesy of Hilde Vanstraelen, www.biewoef.be

Often, it is the high unemployment rates that reflect a racially segregated country. With that in mind, almost 50.2% of the black South African population was unemployed when the last census was carried out in 2001 and among the white population only 6.3% suffered the same fate. Unfortunately, a similar pattern reveals itself concerning teenage pregnancy.

‘The South African history of racial classification accompanied by gross inequalities in access to education and economic opportunities as well as health services is reflected in the teenage fertility rates,’ these are the words of the last national survey on teenage pregnancy, Teenage pregnancy in South Africa: with a specific focus on school-going learners carried out for the South African National Department of Education in 2009. According to this survey, 1.4% to 2.2% account for the amount of teenage mothers among white and Indian races respectively in 2001, whereas about 6% to 7.1% account for the amount among coloured and black races respectively the same year. In other words, the number of young mothers is more than double among coloured and black people in South Africa.

The end of school days

Female learners at Kuyasa Primary School in Khayelitsha, watch with curiosity as a Projects Abroad volunteer shows them how to use a female condom.Photo: Lyndon Metembo

The main issue according to Mayeki is that the children don’t return to school after having a baby. She said, ‘Normally the child cannot come to school anymore due to doctor visits. You must make sure you give the child homework as prescribed by the government; you must send the homework home so that the child is able to study. Some of them will do it and some of them don’t. So you wait until the child is back at school. One day a child came to school holding her baby because there was no one to leave the baby with. The school could not allow that. How are we going to cope and how is that child going to cope?’

Roughly 6.3% of all female learners in South Africa were registered as pregnant in 2008 according to the aforementioned 2009 national survey. In spite of a lack of updated data, South Africa still seems to be facing immensely high numbers of teenage pregnancies.

‘Every year we have kids who are pregnant at school,’ said Mayeki. This is supported by Mrs Plenis – Life Orientation teacher at Uxolo High School, Khayelitsha – ‘Yes, there is a high rate of teenage pregnancy and we have just discovered that the rate among the learners in the lower grades is also very high.’ Learners down to grade four fall pregnant. ‘One pupil, she was ten or eleven, was playing all around. And if the child was kicking, she would tell kids to listen and ask them to touch the stomach,’ Mayeki described about a young pregnant learner. ‘But she never came to school after giving birth. We tried calling her parents to talk her into coming to school but it wasn’t easy for her. I don’t know what happened to that girl.’

‘Teenage pregnancy is affecting us in a very bad way because some of these learners are bright – very bright but because of pregnancy their future has just shattered in a small space of time,’ Plenis pointed out. ‘Even if a learner is bright, if a learner is very intelligent, it is difficult to come back, it is difficult to be the same sharp learner as she [the young mother] was – it is very difficult. They try their best but now they have additional problems so it is not easy.’

Indeed, Mayeki supported her colleague: ‘The mother’s focus won’t be on their education or on their future or success because they are mothers before children.’ Therefore, the unavoidable consequence of children who turn into mothers seems to be that these young girls leave behind an education which might have been the only possible end to a social legacy of poverty.

Force young mothers back to school?

Teenage mothers ‘must be taken to colleges and forced to get an education so that they can be in a position to look after themselves.’ And a child not in school ‘must be taught by force until [he or she] gets a degree. We then return him to his parents as a person who has been developed.’ These were President Jacob Zuma’s famous proposals for a solution to school dropouts during his selection campaign in 2009.

The strong opposition against this idea is irrefutable. President of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) said to Globethics.net, ‘Naptosa believes it is important for young mothers and their children to be together and that separation would be traumatic with long-term negative consequences for both the mothers and their children. Such radical and extreme measures do not have a place in a caring society.’

‘Teenage pregnancy is affecting us in a very bad way because some of these learners are bright – very bright but because of pregnancy their future has just shattered in a small space of time.’

The Parents Centre in Wynberg (Cape Town) also strongly expressed their disagreement on Globethics.net, ‘Separating dropouts from their families and forcing them to be educated immediately conjures images of the Nazi concentration camps and human rights violations. It totally contradicts democratic principles’ plus ‘the teen mother faces enormous challenges as she takes on the responsibilities of being a parent while attempting to complete her studies. Many teen mothers struggle to balance these responsibilities with very little support from their parents, teachers and community. They do not need punishment. They need help, support and encouragement.’

Furthermore, the 2009 public report on teenage pregnancy doesn’t prioritise forcing young mothers back to school, but rather stressed the importance of finishing an education. ‘Instituting strategies to retain girls in school by addressing both financial and school performance reasons, as well as ensuring early return post pregnancy, may be the most effective social protection that the education system can offer to prevent and mitigate the impact of early pregnancy. When learners do drop out of school, concerted effort is required to re-enrol them in school or in alternative systems of education.’

Quiet giggles come from the male learners at Kuyasa Primary School, as a staff member from Projects Abroad teaches them about sex.Photo: Maja Vadum Larsen

‘Strong referral networks are also required with relevant government departments and other community structures which can support learners with child care arrangements, access to reproductive health services, in particular access to contraception to prevent second birth, child support grants and to develop appropriate parenting skills to mitigate the intergenerational transmission of early parenthood.’ The report clearly pointed out the importance of keeping pregnant girls in school with several solid proposals.

Gradual change

Mayeki expressed disbelief at the government progress concerning teenage pregnancies. ‘They just say what should be done but nothing has been done. All they do is count how many kids are getting pregnant so that they know. The statistics of the kids that become pregnant is all they know. We fill in a form every year. All they care about is statistics. I don’t know what will happen after those because for years we have now been doing that but there is still no change – nothing.’

At the beginning of 2010, politician Alfred Mpontshane from Inkatha Freedom Party poses similar disbelief during a parliamentary debate. He questioned Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, raising issues such as, ‘Whether teenage pregnancies continue to be a problem in schools?’ and ‘Whether her department has provided guidelines to help schools deal with teenage pregnancies?’

In response, Motshekga stated that, ‘Since 2007, when the department [of Basic Education] released the measures for the prevention and management of learner pregnancy, the department has focused on working with education stakeholders focusing on ways in which teachers, schools and school communities can prevent and manage teenage pregnancy when it occurs.’

Many agree on the importance of teenage mothers returning to school and perhaps more importantly the action of preventing young learners from falling pregnant in the first place; but in this concern, undeniably, South Africa is working against a tremendous social barrier.

Don’t show them how to use a condom?

During a sex education workshop organised by Projects Abroad, the Kuyasa Primary School was not willing to show a video teaching their learners how to use a condom. ‘They learn by imitating,’ Mayeki explained. ‘We don’t want them to practise sex, we want them to abstain. If you say, they must use a condom; they will take it as if we are saying they can have sex. That is what they will think. That is why we don’t want to tell them you use condoms.’

Each year, several pupils from Uxolo High School in Cape Town’s largest township Khayelitsha, fall pregnant and drop out of school.Photo: Maja Vadum Larsen

‘In our culture there is this mentality that you must not say these things to a child. If you are saying it, they are going to practise it. That is how we are in our culture. The parents and other people are afraid that if you are teaching them these things, if you show them these things then they will take it as if you are teaching them pornography although you are not. In our culture there is little bit of backwardness, but the kids know these things, they watch it on TV,’ recalls Mayeki. She is very aware of the fact that many of her young learners falling pregnant come from a family of young mothers in which sexual protection isn’t necessarily an open subject.

The public report recommends sex education classes ‘adopt a comprehensive approach that addresses both abstinence and safe sex practices, rather than an abstinence-only focus.’ And with a shy laugh Mayeki said, ‘In the beginning I thought, this [videos showing how to put on a condom and of sexual transmitted diseases] cannot be shown to our kids (…) Another teacher also came and said “No-nono, you cannot show this to our kids.” But then again they have to see that those diseases are around – they have to be shown those.’

In order to study further the real problem of teenage pregnancy, perhaps it’s necessary delve deeper into the values of the South African community. In a culture where sex education is considered to be teaching the children to be sexually active, where young mothers almost seem a family heritage and where money for the next meal may lie in the hands of a sexual boyfriend, reducing teenage rates might mean turning a whole culture upside down. Listening closely to Mayeki’s words, is a cultural change in relation to sexuality actually starting to happen in Africa? A cultural change that could be the end of a long heritage of poverty?