Pregnancy shoot up by 80%?
Almost 2 000km from the Baloyi family, in a Khayelitsha school, an HSRC researcher sits down with 14-yearold Dineo Tshobo*. “Do you think Noloyiso should tell the police when her boyfriend Xolani forces her to have sex?” the researcher asks.
Dineo replies: “No, no, that’s normal. He gives her money for things she needs, so when Xolani wants something [sex] she must give him. He deserves it.”
This research is part of a five-year pilot project — called the Kwanele Intervention — that will challenge harmful gender norms uncovered among schoolchildren, including ideas that women should provide sex in exchange for material and emotional support and that those who decline sex are “just playing hard to get”.
Through role-playing, children from 20 schools in Khayelitsha near Cape Town learn to rethink toxic notions about relationships, the programme manager at the youth non-profit Grassroot Soccer Mbulelo Malotana explains. The organisation is helping the HSRC to run the project with the health organisation Soul City Institute for Social Justice.
The early results from the study are shocking.
Almost half of primary school pupils in Khayelitsha have experienced sexual violence. Children as young as 10-years-old reported, for instance, being slapped or verbally threatened. A fifth of youngsters were forced to perform humiliating acts or were raped.
Some said they were threatened with a weapon to have sex.
The study also revealed that primary schoolchildren are at a higher risk of abuse than their older peers, but they were unequipped to talk about it. Primary school pupils were unlikely to understand that they had been raped and were instead quick to say that they “agreed in the end”, lead researcher Ingrid Lynch told Bhekisisa in August.
Back in Bushbuckridge, young girls aren’t taught about rape either. “My friends and I have never talked about rape. I had never heard of it before [it happened to me],” Angela says.
As in Angela’s case, children are mostly only warned about the dangers and diseases associated with sex, says Benita Moolman, who researches gender at the HSRC. These messages are important, but they can’t be taught without explaining how relationships work in real life. “Young people are exploring relationships whether adults tell them it’s dangerous or not,” she says.
Moolman says teaching young adolescents, and especially young girls, about relationships can help them to avoid the dangerous situations their teachers warn them against. “Instead of telling them not to go into relationships, teach them how to set goals and boundaries.”
She concludes: “Such lessons could give girls the self-confidence to leave bad relationships.”
When Mpumalanga health MEC Sasekani Manzini revealed that more than 10 000 teenagers in the province had become mothers, it spurred a flurry of news articles.
But these numbers could be misleading. “Teen pregnancies have not necessarily increased that much. We have just been getting better at detecting them,” Makoae explains.
At just under 8%, Mpumalanga’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average of 6.8%, data from the Health Systems Trust revealed in 2017. But, in total, the number of teenagers giving birth in hospitals in South Africa has dropped by 12% in the past five years.
Without context, dramatic statistics can inflame myths about teenage pregnancies, Makoae says. “In reality, teenage pregnancies are a symptom of society’s ignorance of what young girls like Angela need.”
For example, Makoae says, media reports have alleged that people get pregnant for grant money.
But there’s no proof for that.
A 2015 PLOS ONE study found no evidence that adolescent mothers were deliberately getting pregnant for child grants. In addition, a 2012 household survey published in the journal African Health Sciences revealed that most girls — almost three-quarters — who had children in their adolescence said their pregnancies were unintended. The survey, which was conducted in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Kwazulunatal and Mpumalanga, revealed that 55.5% of female respondents between 18 and 24 got pregnant the first time because they did not understand the risks involved in what they were doing or did not understand how pregnancy happens.
On paper, South Africa’s sexual education policies are leading the way on the continent, Makoae says.
But teachers, who often work in under-resourced schools, frequently don’t get the message across, she explains. “Teachers are missing the opportunity to teach children about human sexuality because it often goes against their own beliefs.”
In a rural province like Mpumalanga, teachers are sometimes the only ones talking to children about sex, says the HSRC’S Roshin Essop. The South African Journal of Child Health research showed that teachers in poorer com- munities lack the support they need to do this efficiently.
When children go home, Essop says, they often face stigma about sex that stops them from asking their parents questions. But there could be an easy way to make sure children get the information they need by using tools that already exist.
Makoae says the clinic booklets parents get when their children are born could just as easily be used for sex education. These documents make communication between homes and clinics easier by telling parents what health services their child needs in early life. She says a similar booklet with sexual health information for young adolescents could help to bridge the gap between classrooms and clinics. And parents can keep track of what their children are learning, she explains.
Clinics could help to find out why young girls are falling pregnant by simply asking, Democratic Alliance spokesperson for health in Mpumalanga Jane Sithole argues. Health facilities already gather information about patients when they come in. So, adding one or two questions about the reasons the young women fall pregnant could help us to track what information is still missing, she says.
On the 10-minute drive to the hospital, Angela does not say a word. She’s gone into labour, but her face doesn’t betray a thing.
“She doesn’t talk much,” her sister says. “But she’s strong.”
*Not their real names
This story was produced by the M&G Centre for Health Journalism, Bhekisisa www.bhekisisa.org
(Un)safe spaces: Musa, Baloyi’s young brother, was forced to wait until his sister’s armed attacker had fallen asleep to slip out and call for help