Teen moms: Zuma’s ab­surd no­tions must be chal­lenged

The pres­i­dent’s ideas on school­girl moth­ers are grounded in danger­ous fal­la­cies. For a start ’tak­ing away’ their new­borns is both il­le­gal and un­con­sti­tu­tional, writes Katharine Hall

Sunday Times - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

IN a star­tling mo­ment in par­lia­ment this week, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma sug­gested that teenage moth­ers should be sep­a­rated from their ba­bies un­til they have com­pleted their school­ing. The idea is ab­surd, con­trary to na­tional pol­icy and un­ten­able in law — it could never hap­pen.

Chil­dren have a con­sti­tu­tional right to parental or fam­ily care. The Chil­dren’s Act makes it clear it is in a child’s best in­ter­ests to grow up in a fam­ily. They may only be placed in al­ter­na­tive care as a last re­sort.

Early child­hood is a sen­si­tive de­vel­op­men­tal pe­riod, when it is im­por­tant for chil­dren to be with their moth­ers. Those work­ing in the early child­hood devel­op­ment sec­tor — within and out­side gov­ern­ment — stress the “first 1 000 days” as a crit­i­cal time to pro­vide ser­vices and sup­port.

The pres­i­dent seems ig­no­rant of this. And his ar­gu­ments are falsely premised and dam­ag­ing.

His of­fice quickly tried to con­tain the dam­age, say­ing that Zuma was not sin­gling out girls, but re­fer­ring to boys and girls.

But that’s not the point. Zuma tried to re­tract the whole idea the fol­low­ing day in the face of wide­spread crit­i­cism, ex­plain­ing that he was only re­fer­ring to a pre­vi­ous sug­ges­tion he made in 2009, which was also crit­i­cised then. Nev­er­the­less, the un­der­ly­ing points he makes pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to clar­ify some mis­con­cep­tions.

He claims that teenage preg­nancy was some­thing that did not hap­pen in “ear­lier times” when tra­di­tional cul­tures were re­spected.

There is an as­sump­tion that teen preg­nancy is an es­ca­lat­ing prob­lem. This is not true. The South­ern African Labour and Devel­op­ment Re­search Unit at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town an­a­lysed birth his­tory data across six large na­tional house­hold sur­veys span­ning 25 years, and found that the per­cent­age of women who give birth be­fore the age of 20 had de­creased from 30% in 1984 to 23% in 2008.

Other stud­ies have found the same. Teenage fer­til­ity rates de­clined af­ter the 1996 Cen­sus, and Depart­ment of Health data show no in­crease in the share of teenagers aged be­tween 15 and 19 who at­tended an­te­na­tal clin­ics.

There is a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween giv­ing birth at the age of 19 and at the age of 15. Most “teen births” are to older teens — 18- and 19-year-olds. Th­ese are not “chil­dren” in terms of the con­sti­tu­tion, although many are still at school. They are legally old enough to get mar­ried, so it is pre­sum­ably ac­cept­able for them to have sex and have ba­bies.

Teenagers to­day are less likely to give birth than those in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. The dif­fer­ence is that teen preg­nan­cies used to be less vis­i­ble, as the baby was of­ten claimed by the mother’s mother as her own child. Although stigma re-

MOTHER AND CHILD: Con­trary to the pres­i­dent’s views, teenage moth­ers are not an ’un­ten­able bur­den’ on so­ci­ety mains, teen preg­nancy is more vis­i­ble now, and this is a good thing. It means that chil­dren can grow up know­ing their own moth­ers, and young moth­ers can get the ser­vices and sup­port they need to care for their chil­dren. Un­less, of course, they are forcibly sep­a­rated in the way Zuma sug­gests.

An­other dif­fer­ence is that more teenagers at­tend school now than pre­vi­ously. This may ex­plain why schools claim to be experiencing “higher” teen preg­nancy rates.

The South African Schools Act makes ed­u­ca­tion com­pul­sory un­til age 15, or the com­ple­tion of Grade 9, whichever comes first. The act also per­mits preg­nant teenagers to stay in school, and to re­turn af­ter child­birth. At­ten­dance rates are very high — in terms of per­cent in the up­per 90s— dur­ing the com­pul­sory school­ing phase, af­ter which there is a drop-off among both girls and boys.

Teenage preg­nancy is not the main rea­son for school dropout. Pupils also drop out of school be­cause of the poor qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion, or 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: they are more likely to find work. The re­turns to ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion are greater. So it is im­por­tant to en­able chil­dren to com­plete school­ing and fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion, while also im­prov­ing the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion.

So­cial as­sis­tance grants are a con­sti­tu­tional en­ti­tle­ment, and are es­sen­tial for sup­ple­ment­ing in­come to poor house­holds. At present, 16.1 mil­lion grants are dis­bursed ev­ery month, and there are plans to ex­pand the so­cial as­sis­tance pro­gramme fur­ther.

Zuma spoke of teenage moth­ers plac­ing “an un­ten­able bur­den on so­ci­ety and the state’s wel­fare bill”. He also sug­gested that grants should be paid in vouch­ers, rather than cash, to pre­vent mis­spending, for ex­am­ple at hair sa­lons.

The voucher idea has been sug­gested by the DA be­fore, but it is patently mis­guided, and dis­crim­i­nates against women.

Ex­tended fam­i­lies, par­tic­u­larly grand­moth­ers, have al­ways played an im­por­tant role in car­ing for the chil­dren of young moth­ers. Zuma com­plained that old-age pen­sions are “wrongly” spent on chil­dren. It is true that women’s pen­sions are of­ten spent on chil­dren in the house­hold (and this is a good thing in the cir­cum­stances), but the pen- sion only kicks in at the age of 60 and most moth­ers of teenagers are not that old.

Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown that the child sup­port grant, while much lower in value, is gen­er­ally “well spent”, and 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 an anti-poor sen­ti­ment that those who are more in­formed, in­clud­ing pol­i­cy­mak­ers in his gov­ern­ment, have been try­ing to cor­rect.

Zuma is the fig­ure­head of a gov­ern­ment that has com­mit­ted it­self to pro-poor pol­icy and claims to take “ev­i­dence-based pol­icy mak­ing” se­ri­ously. Surely it is un­ac­cept­able to those who work for him, and to so­ci­ety, when he pub­licly airs per­sonal views that are un­in­formed, so­cially con­ser­va­tive and con­tra­dict the pol­icy di­rec­tion?

Hall is a se­nior re­searcher at the Chil­dren’s In­sti­tute at UCT

Teenagers to­day are less likely to give birth than those in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. The dif­fer­ence is that teen preg­nan­cies used to be less vis­i­ble The pres­i­dent’s ref­er­ence to spend­ing grants on hair­dressers is un­for­tu­nate be­cause it re­it­er­ates an anti-poor sen­ti­ment

Com­ment on this: write to tel­lus@sun­day­times.co.za or SMS us at 33971 www.times­live.co.za

Pic­ture: JAMES OATWAY

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