Teens become moms to give life meaning
The Big Read Sixteen-year-old Zaileene didn't have a baby to access the child care grant. She didn't fall pregnant because she was careless or ignorant. She had a child to "fill the gap".
"All I wanted was someone to love and someone to love me back," she says.
This is the poignant conclusion of Evelyn Maruping's documentary Where's the Love?, about teenage pregnancy in Homevale, Kimberley, and part of the soon-to-be-aired I am Mzansi series of doccies made by youth about youth; films that dig beneath the headlines about young people and their supposed immorality.
While the nation drew a collective gasp at the "pregnancy tsunami" sweeping through our schools, with an unacceptable 5 000 girls fall pregnant in one year in Gauteng alone - and these are just the cases we know about - teenage births have, in fact, come down in South Africa.
We also have the lowest teen fertility rate in mainland sub-Saharan Africa. But, as Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga rightly points out, one teenage pupil pregnant is one too many.
Rather than pointing fingers, we need to focus on the challenges teens face to better understand the choices they make. As Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi highlighted, if teens are having babies, they are having unprotected sex, which puts them at risk of contracting HIV. In fact, teenage pregnancy almost doubles the risk of HIV infection.
So why are girls having unprotected sex - and most often with men four to five years older than them, who have higher HIV prevalence rates than males in their same age group? It's time to get to the root of the root, to address the "gap" that our youth are trying to fill.
Let's not forget that it is older adolescents between the ages of 17 and 19 who constitute the bulk of teen pregnancies.
This age coincides with one of the most tumultuous transitions in a young person's life: the time they leave or are about to leave the protective environment of school, perhaps for the big bad world of unemployment, family responsibilities and definitely the bombardment of bling culture as a proxy for success in life. And so our young people look for alternative ways to affirm themselves, including traditional notions of what it means to be a woman or man.
Despite what many people think, youngsters are aware of the economic and educational consequences of having a child too young. They are also all too aware of the pressure to fit in.
As the authors of a 2003 study, Pregnant or Positive: Adolescent Childbearing and HIV Risk in KwaZulu-Natalnote: "Although the majority of adolescents may not wish to become pregnant soon, they are nonetheless under a great deal of peer pressure to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and for boys especially, to have many sexual partners.
"Sexual activity with a partner confers the status of a relationship, and for many girls may bring benefits in the form of gifts or financial support.
For boys, having many girlfriends can be an affirmation of manhood."
The notion of childbearing to prove womanhood plays a large part in why many women have babies before they are 20.
Add to this a new generation whose identity is no longer centred around the struggle for freedom but a struggle to forge an identity in a world where old problems persist and new ones have sprung up (such as HIV/Aids) and the gap becomes a chasm.
It is this chasm that our prevention programmes need to address by equipping youth with the tools, skills and self-belief they need to carve their own paths and have high aspirations.
A girl, for example, who continues to occupy low socioeconomic status in society, for whose family talking about teen sexuality is taboo and who struggles to find a job even if she manages to complete school, may view having a baby as her only alternative to finding some purpose. Becoming a mom may be the only adult role she feels able to play.
So let's not fall into the panicked trap of rolling out campaigns and initiatives without looking at all the variables that factor into adolescents' decision-making, including those factors that are beyond their control. While we need to continue educating our young people about the ABCs, we also need to ensure that our programmes are culturally relevant, emphasise continuing education (particularly after childbirth), involve parents and families, and support our youth's ambitions, aspirations and attempts to work out who they are.
With HIV counselling and testing in schools imminent, why not seize this opportunity to bring our youth a more comprehensive package of support, one that includes personal upliftment and youth development programmes on top of nonjudgmental sexual health services.
This would empower our youth to make the best choices for their present and futures.
- Etkin is the communications manager of loveLife