News | South Africa | Health
Shocking teenage and child pregnancy statistics have highlighted the normalisation of statutory rape and unprotected sex between minors.
This is according to experts who have warned that government needs a far more comprehensive prevention plan for this social ill than simply preaching abstinence to children and teenagers. The power dynamics that exist between minors and the adults they are exposed to also needs to be addressed.
This follows the revelation that 23 226 teenage pregnancies were recorded by the Gauteng Department of Health between April 2020 and March 2021. Gauteng health MEC Dr Nomathemba Mogketi divulged the figures in provincial legislature replies to the Democratic Alliance (DA) who released them on Tuesday.
Also Read: More than 20,000 teenage pregnancies reported in Gauteng since April 2020
Clinical Director at The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Shaheda Omar says the organisation has recently run a program educating young boys and girls on the issues surrounding teenage pregnancies, including the sticky issue of consent.
“We speak of pressed and stressed consent,” says Omar. “We need to approach this systematically so that we look at systems such as patriarchy and what is going on is that children are exposed to multi-level influences. What I mean by that is that often the children engage in sexual activity as a result of multiple influences, including advertising and media.
“Often its not about sexual gratification but its about either a sense of belonging because of peer pressure that places a huge burden on young boys and girls.”
Of concern is that children around the ages of 10 and 14 are especially vulnerable in terms of their development physically and cognitively, and so they cannot make informed positive choices around their sexuality, let alone consent to sexual intercourse which results in pregnancy.
Teenagers are also exposed to the pressures of poverty and consumerism and sex is often presented to them as a means to acquire financial security or certain luxury items at the behest of older men.
The Soul City Institute for Social Justice says these statistics are not a shock to them, given the troubling patriarchal social dynamics at play in South Africa. Soul City’s Campaigns Manager Hlanga Mqushulu says men are the perpetrators of these acts of sexual violence towards young girls and their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies extends to even girls.
“It is disconcerting that in a country where the age of sexual consent is 16 years, there are no records of statutory rape cases despite the departments of health, police, and social development being aware of the problem.”
The issue is complex and requires different sectors in society to come on board to think and act on how in addition to holding the men who are perpetrators accountable do we also create an environment where young girls understand their sexual health and rights and how to exercise those rights when they are violated.
The government and, by extension, society has failed in a number of ways when it comes to defining and discussing the issue of consent among children and between children and older people.
So says gender activist Lisa Vetten, who is an honorary research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER). Hesitancy around divulging too much information during sex education at school is a hindrance to properly preparing children for dealing with the pressures of sexuality, including how to protect themselves or recognise sexual coercion.
“I think in terms of messaging I’m sure you’ll remember last year there was an outcry about some of the sex education curriculum that was being promoted and I think that’s a shame because sex education shouldn’t be just saying what body-part is this and how are babies made. It needs to include things like peer pressure, how to deal with someone who is trying to pressurise you into a relationship; what do you do when you are confused and are worried that if you don’t have sex you’re going to lose the relationship.”
Also Read:Gqeberha woman gets 12 years in prison for raping teen boy
The kind of sex education South Africa needs should look at the dynamics of consent intimacy, relationships, and how to say no, she explains.
Children should know where to go if they are having difficulties around this so that young people are given a bit of a better grip on how to deal with situations around consenting to sexual activity. Adolescents and young children often rely heavily on their friends.
Messaging directed at boys is also of paramount concern, Vetten adds.
“Clearly there needs to be much more education targeted at them and there is always questions around intimacy, ethical sex relationships, ensuring that both of you want to have this relationship etc. I also think what does it mean to be responsible for a child. If you are 16 and you have a baby and you are the father, you need to take responsibility. You can’t expect to leave it on the girl. So I think there possibly needs to be some thought around that as well.”
According to Vetten, girls under the age of 12 cannot legally consent to sex.
“Any girl of 11 years and younger who is pregnant at a medical facility ought to be investigated immediately. Between the ages of 12 to fifteen the law recognizes that you can consent, but you’re just not allowed to. If the boy is roughly the same age as a girl and there’s no more than a 3-year difference between the two, they can’t be prosecuted.
“One would look into an alternative way of educating them around sexuality. If it’s consensual and there is no significant age gap it’s not a criminal offence. If the age gap is bigger than three years, or the father is 16 and older authorities have to investigate. If it’s consensual there is a possibility of statutory rape. If it’s not consensual, then it’s rape.”
But Vetten warns that children should not be stigmatised when they turn out pregnant and more sensitivity should be employed.
“I also think there needs to be some training of nurses around (asking) what’s happening here. What’s happening at home? Are you being supported? Who is the father?” she says.
“You don’t want to stigmatise children or make them feel that they are the criminals. There must be an investigation into exactly what happened because if it’s such young girls it’s clearly is a cause for deep concern.”
Since the lockdown began in March last year, there have been 934 deliveries from girls aged 10 to 14, while 19 316 teens from 14 to 19 have birth in the same period. In the same period, 2976 pregnancies were terminated from girls aged 10 to 19.
The department does not collect any data on fathers of children born to minors. According to Mogketi, cases of statutory rape are reported by Healthcare social workers at hospitals and clinics to the Department of Social Development and the SAPS.
The Department of Health does not collect any data related to statutory rape, despite having a database of children giving birth. Mogketi further confirms that medical personnel have an obligation to inform a social worker or the police when an under-aged girl is pregnant.
If the pregnancy is a result of sexual abuse, then the matter is reported in terms of the Children’s Act, which deals with the mandatory reporting of abuse, she adds.
“If the mother was under 16 years of age when she became pregnant the matter is managed as a case of statutory rape, even if it was consensual.”
She said there are only statics of teen pregnancies under 18, but no statistics collected the number of teenagers whose pregnancies were a result of rape or sexual abuse.
Teen and child pregnancies are a major contributor to school dropout rates. According to a 2019 paper published in the journal of health and psychology, approximately 120 million children are out of school with almost half (45%) of the world’s child school drop outs in Southern Africa.
In South Africa, approximately 4% drop out in primary school age (13 and below), while in high school 12% drop out. These statistics from the Department of basic Education are are old, however, originating in 2011 and have not been updated since 2014.
To support the Teddy Bear Foundation’s efforts to educate young girls on the challenges that come from becoming sexually active at a young age, you can make a donation to:
Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused ChildrenNedbank ParktownBranch Code: 194405Account Number: 1944183361Swift code: NEDSZ