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
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.