It's said we have two pandemics - Covid 19 and childhood pregnancies
Globally the stats are concerning. Apparently, an estimated 21 million girls aged 15 - 19 become pregnant and about 12 million in developing countries give birth every year.
News 24 reported a top story saying that more than 600 hundred girls aged 9 - 10 years gave birth in South Africa in 2020. It quotes Statistics South Africa as having 890,303 babies born and of these, 34,587 were born to girls 17 years and younger.
Provincially, in South Africa I will focus on Gauteng, the Province in which I live.
The Gauteng Department of Social Services announced that of the births recorded, there were more than 23,000 teenage pregnancies between April 2020 and March 2021.
Again Gauteng, 2,976 girls aged 10 - 14 years chose abortion. That's a very scary figure which obviously raises the pregnancy statistics,. These are only the recorded abortions. Locally it is said that there are herbal "Medicines' which, swollowed or vaginally douched can precipitate an abortion. Private doctors perform abortions. Individual statistics for these abortions, I have not seen.
The counting confirms the crisis.
The questions asked are whether there is any substantive research into the reasons for the huge increasing number of early pregnancies. I've only come across opinions, hear-say, and experiential narratives.
My opinion is based on my experience as a child and youth care worker in a number of different settings.
Bells would tinkle for me in any of these settings when sexual interest manifested in behaviours earlier than developmentally expected. ..like 9- year olds provocatively picking up the skirt to expose her panties; a history of sexual abuse; school girls with working boyfriends; taking sanitary pads then having them found stashed in the top of the wardrobe or hidden in lockers; precocious flirtation.
My experience is that the first time is not the only time and that following her first penetrative sex experience we could safely say that the girl was sexually active. Given the right kind of trust in a child and youth care worker, girls would share their sexual status. It was important in any event because of possible HIV .
She was 10 years old - not yet menstruating. The playground duty teacher found her pulling boys into the girls toilet. Some boys complained. The school complained. Something they said, had to be done. One thing we could do was to allocate a child and youth care worker to be on hand to allow the school a swift call out.
We had a Sexologist on the Board of Management. She offered to spend time with the girl.
"Barrie. You must put this girl onto contraception...the injection
"But she's not menstruating and she's only 10 "..
"You have to choose. She can menstruate at any time. Either you contracept, or you have a childhood pregnancy on your hands. You must decide"
I struggled. Do I, can I put a premenstrual girl on contraception?.'
I safe-guarded myself by taking my opinion to the full Board of Management.
Agreed. She must be on the injection.
If, as an institution, we found this to be such a complex ethical dilemma, then how much more is this for a parent both an ethical and practical dilemma.
The general chatter in the villages, townships, and even in the inner city was and I hear, still is that the local clinics are not always child friendly. The Health practitioners have been known to shout at the girls and to call them names. They can I was told, be judgemental, Local people have said often to me that they fear talk. Talk where everybody knows everybody. "Now everyone will know. What do they say about me as a girl? 'What do they say about me as a mother?'
There are other factors at work. One is economic. We have a child care grant to unworking mothers. When it was first made available and paid, there was a lot of talk that in poor families some of the girl's mothers, after the first baby was born, told the girl to go get herself pregnant again in order to get a second grant. Then there are incidents of the girl's mother applying to foster those children in order to get the larger foster care grant.
Sugar Daddies are now called ' Blessers' in South Africa. I experienced this mostly in township environments. If he had a car and some form of job title, - he was a target. But then again the girls were frequently sought after, called 'Sweet 16's or "Fresh young ones" They would pay a 'girlfriend allowance and more. It's money for sex.
Girls have explained their pregnancy as peer pressure. They say that their friends were all 'doing it.' and "It's nice. Don't listen to your parents, they are just old fashioned. The boy can wear a condom."
Boys, however were sayng that sex with a condom was like eating a sweet with it's paper on. Sex with a condom was not good sex.
I had more than one experience of girls deliberately trying to get pregnant to escape having to be at school or to escape their placement in the Children's Home. If girls were on the pill, we had to take responsibility as child and youth care workers to to administer the pill ourselves and to check under the tongue to see it had been swallowed.
The effect of early pregnancies in South Africa, as anywhere, but in a country riddled with excessive poverty and unemployment, is that the cycle, not only remains unbroken, but exacerbated. Girls are no longer expelled from school when pregnant. Once having given birth if there is a caregiver.. like granny, they can return to class. My experience is that many don't complete their education to matric (maturity) level. That makes it even more difficult to find work.
Now for Covid 19.. are the two, now called pandemics, connected?
There has been , world wide, an incline in the number of girls giving birth during this period. Some opinions are that it is too early to tell if Covid 19 is a major contributing factor in this.
In SouthAfrica, there is a startling figure of a 60% increase following the lockdown period in which schools were closed or class reduced. ( Again, the Gauteng Department of Health Report)
Some opinion has it that during the lockdown, contraceptives were in short supply or unavailable in the clinics. That included condoms.
Violence against women and children has itself been called an epidemic and a culture in recent years in this country. The number if incidents of gender violence and child abuse increased during the lockdown. The 2020| 2021 Annual Crime Statistics Report put the number of child assaults at 24000. Child rape statistics increased.
Taken all in all, we have a serious crisis with no easy solutions When the Child and Youth Care system had to be overhauled and transformed in this country, in 1995 forward, an Inter Ministerial Committee was formed. It is time to form such a body again to address this crisis. Social Welfare, Health, Education, at least,
As social service professionals and practitioners, we advocate for social workers, community development workers, youth workers and child and youth care workers to be employed wherever children and young people are. As an inter managerial team (IMT), there has to be strategic, structured and unstructured interventions and support to contribute to the mitigation of this crisis.
We need child and youth care workers employed in schools and in communities to do what they do best in the transformation of South African society.
That's what we do!