Teen preg­nan­cies on the decline in SA

Hope JZ’s call to split ba­bies, moms is a joke This is a re­sponse to Pres­i­dent Zuma’s calls to sep­a­rate ba­bies from teenage moth­ers

Pretoria News - - NEWS - KATHARINE HALL

THE PRES­I­DENT’S sug­ges­tion to re­move the ba­bies of young moth­ers from their care is clearly lu­di­crous and un­in­formed, pre­sum­ably made in jest to build rap­port with tra­di­tional lead­ers. But it pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to clar­ify some com­mon mis­con­cep­tions.

First, there is a wide­spread be­lief that teenage preg­nancy is an es­ca­lat­ing prob­lem. This is not true. Fewer teenagers have ba­bies nowa­days than they did in ear­lier times. Sal­dru (the South­ern African Labour & Devel­op­ment Re­search Unit at UCT) an­a­lysed birth his­tory data across six large South African na­tional house­hold sur­veys span­ning 25 years, and found that the pro­por­tion of teenagers who give birth be­fore the age of 20 had de­creased sub­stan­tially: from 30 per­cent in 1984 to 23 per­cent in 2008.

Other stud­ies have found the same: there was a decline in teenage fer­til­ity rates af­ter the 1996 Cen­sus, and data from the Depart­ment of Health shows no in­crease in the share of young women (un­der 19) pre­sent­ing at ante-natal clin­ics.

There is a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween giv­ing birth at the age of 19 and the age of 15.

Most “teen births” are to women aged 18 to19 (th­ese are not “chil­dren” in terms of the con­sti­tu­tional def­i­ni­tion, although many have not yet com­pleted school).

Child-bear­ing rates for younger teens have also de­clined over the years, ac­cord­ing to the Sal­dru study.

In 2008, only 5 per­cent of chil­dren were born to younger teenagers un­der 17 years, down from 13 per­cent in 1984.

Teenagers in the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion are less likely to give birth than those in their moth­ers’ or grand­moth­ers’ gen­er­a­tions.

On the other hand, more teenagers at­tend school than they did in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, and this may ex­plain why schools claim to be experiencing “higher” teen preg­nancy rates.

This brings me to a sec­ond point: in terms of the South African Schools Act, ed­u­ca­tion is com­pul­sory only up un­til the age of 15 or com­ple­tion of Grade 9 – whichever comes first.

The act also per­mits preg­nant teenagers to stay in school while they are preg­nant, and to re­turn af­ter child­birth. At­ten­dance rates are very high – in the up­per 90 per­cent – dur­ing the com­pul­sory school­ing phase, af­ter which there is a marked drop-off among both girls and boys.

Teenage preg­nancy is not the most com­mon rea­son for school dropouts. Pupils also drop out of school be­cause of the poor qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion (many of those who drop out have al­ready had to re­peat grades), or be­cause of house­hold poverty.

There can be no ques­tion of “forc­ing” young peo­ple to fin­ish school if they are over 15, as the law does not pro­vide for this.

How­ever, it is well es­tab­lished that those who do fin­ish Grade 12 have an ad­van­tage: not only do they have more ed­u­ca­tion, but they are more likely to find work and to earn higher wages than those with­out ma­tric.

The re­turns are far greater for those who have com­pleted fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion.

So it is im­por­tant to fo­cus on ways to en­able and sup­port chil­dren to com­plete their school­ing and fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion.

A third point re­lates to so­cial as­sis­tance for care­givers.

Ex­tended fam­i­lies, par­tic­u­larly grand­moth­ers, have al­ways played an im­por­tant role in car­ing for the chil­dren of young moth­ers.

It is true that women’s old-age pen­sions are of­ten spent for the ben­e­fit of chil­dren in the house­hold, but the pen­sion only kicks in at the age of 60 and most moth­ers of teenagers are not that old.

The child sup­port grant is avail­able as fi­nan­cial sup­port for the care­givers of chil­dren, but is much lower in value – R330 per month, com­pared with R1 410 for the old-age pen­sion.

De­spite this small amount, nu­mer­ous stud­ies have con­firmed that the money is gen­er­ally “well-spent” – it is as­so­ci­ated with bet­ter ed­u­ca­tional, nu­tri­tional and health out­comes for chil­dren.

The pres­i­dent’s ref­er­ence to spend­ing grants on hair­dressers is un­for­tu­nate, be­cause it re­it­er­ates a popular “anti-poo” sen­ti­ment which those who are more in­formed, in­clud­ing pol­icy-mak­ers in his gov­ern­ment, are try­ing to cor­rect.

Fi­nally, the idea of sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren from their moth­ers is in­ap­pro­pri­ate and un­help­ful.

Early child­hood is a sen­si­tive de­vel­op­men­tal pe­riod when it is im­por­tant for chil­dren to be with their moth­ers.

Quite apart from the proven benefits of breast­feed­ing, the process of bond­ing in the early years is im­por­tant for the emo­tional and cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment of the child as well as the men­tal health and par­ent­ing skills of the mother.

Those work­ing in the Early Child­hood Devel­op­ment (ECD) sec­tor – within and out­side of gov­ern­ment – stress the “first thou­sand days” (the nine months of preg­nancy and first two years of life) as a crit­i­cal time to pro­vide ser­vices and sup­port.

Hall is a se­nior re­searcher at the Chil­dren’s In­sti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town.

Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma.

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