South Africa: Young womanly bodies, underage sex and adolescent pregnancy

October 3, 2013 3:54 pm0 comments by:
 PICTURE - UNFPA

PICTURE – UNFPA

Since the advent of its current constitutional dispensation in 1994, South Africa has, at least in law, done away with patriarch systems of morality that dictate to women how to live their lives or to carry their bodies.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa entitles women to equality before the law and a right to equal protection and benefit of the law (section 9). Women have inherent dignity and a right to have their dignity respected and protected (section 10).

Perhaps most significant, considering the historical context, every woman has a right to bodily and psychological integrity which includes, among others, the rights to “make decisions concerning reproduction” and “to security and control over her body” (section 12(2)).

The challenge, however, is that the old patriarch systems of morality have generally not been replaced with the empowerment necessary to undo centuries of physical, emotional and psychological of women, and to prevent ways of old from affecting young women

In my experience (albeit very limited experience) a disproportionate majority women place significant value on how they are viewed by men and therefore, their self-esteem and self-worth hinge on how they are viewed by men. This affects how women, especially young women, think about sex and the sexual experience.

Many young women, even in early experimentation with sexual intercourse, think of sex in a self-denying manner; that is to say, they think of sex as an obligatory duty of a female partner. This, coupled with a lack of primary sexual education, leads to a worrying trend of adolescent pregnancy.

According to the South African Integrated Social Crime Prevention Strategy (ISCPS, 2011), of the 1 199 712 births registered with the Department of Home Affairs in 2007, teenage pregnancies accounted for a third of all births in South Africa. “Teenage pregnancies continue to be high, with 35% of all teenagers having been pregnant or had a child by the age of 19”. (Berry and Guthrie, 2003)

 The average teenager in South Africa has sex for the first time at the age of 14. An estimated 20% of all young women who become sexually active become pregnant within the first month of sexual activity, with 50% becoming pregnant within the first six months. (Umsobomvu Youth Fund, 2003)

Adolescent pregnancy reaches primary school levels. According to the Annual Schools Survey (2010/2011), a recorded 109 Grade 3 learners fell pregnant in 2009 throughout South Africa. The average Grade 3 learner is 9 years old. (A recorded 26 Grade 3 leaners were pregnant in 2010.)

A whopping 36 702 learners fell pregnant in 2010, 9 908 or 26.99% of them were under the age of 16. This figure was actually a decrease from a total of 45 276 in 2009.

These numbers are nerve-wracking if one considers that sex with a child under the age of 16 constitutes statutory rape in South African law.

Health risks

Unprotected sex and adolescent pregnancy carry tremendous risks for both the young mother and the child. These risks include sexually transmitted diseases, infant and parent mortality and unhealthy newborns.

The State of the World’s Children report (Unicef, 2009) reported that 70 000 of the 500 000 deaths related to childbirth complications worldwide are girls aged between 15 and 19.

The 2008 Department of Health antenatal data showed 12.9% of pregnant 15-19 year old women were HIV positive. From the age of 17 onwards, every second woman who has been pregnant is infected with HIV.

There is also the grim problem of alcohol abuse by pregnant women, especially young women. The consequence is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which “damages the developing brain, resulting in mental retardation. Children with FAS struggle to learn and reason. The syndrome also causes abnormalities in the nervous system, organs and limbs, and leads to characteristic facial features” (Marais 2006).

A study by Parry (2005) shows that the levels of FAS in South Africa are the highest ever recorded. According to the ISCPS, “in research conducted in the Western Cape (Wellington) the prevalence of FAS among Grade 1 students was found to be 41–46 per 1 000 in 1997, rising to 65–74 per 1 000 in 1999.”

Solutions?

It is never easy to navigate through the intricate mesh of morality. The complexities are even greater in diverse multi-cultural societies like South Africa. However, one universal solution is education.

Education provides dual empowerment in the sense that it apprises young women about their bodies and gives value to those who are riddled with poverty or other environmental factors conducive to underage sex.

There should be strong focus on sex education in primary schools. Where curious young minds cannot be prevented from engaging in experimental sexual intercourse, they must at least be equipped with the intelligence necessary to make smart decisions, like demanding the use of contraceptives.

Importantly, education has the potential to cure our society of another peril: absent fathers, specifically young fathers. Young boys need to learn that beyond reckless sexual pleasure lie consequences and responsibilities.

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