South Africa’s teenage pregnancy rate has jumped 60% amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase affecting the education of many young women and their hopes to escape the cycle of poverty.
When schoolgirls in South Africa become pregnant, only one-third return to class — a major factor contributing to socioeconomic disadvantage among youth.
Serena, who does not want her real name to be used, was 15 years old when she gave birth to a daughter.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was confused. I was scared. I was devastated,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t balance my life, my education, and the baby, but due to the support of my parents, I can do that.”
Serena’s experience as a teen mother was made more difficult by her parents’ initial rejection and being ostracized by the local community.
Her mother, Rebecca, said, “I was very upset, very upset and too emotional, but all in all, ‘Serena, this is not the end of the world, the main purpose is that you must … go to school, attend school regularly, respect your teachers as you respect your parents at home.'”
Eddie Kekana, a primary school principal in Johannesburg, says the education system should put a priority on sex education.
“My school is situated in an informal settlement, where there are serious social-economic factors leading to the high rate of teenage pregnancy,” he said. “COVID-19 also exacerbated the situation. We should actually start collaborating, and then take responsibility educating our young people about this particular kind of a problem.”
Implementation of sex education programs was abandoned in the face of resistance by many parents, says Mugwena Maluleke, the head of a South African teachers’ union.
“When it was supposed to be introduced, the sexuality education, the communities started to make a lot of arguments, so it had to be stopped and, therefore, the training didn’t take place,” Maluleke said. “The communities were not happy with that, and we are seeing the consequences of not having sexuality education; is the highest rate of teenage pregnancy.”
While many communities and parents opposed sex education in schools, some parents like Serena’s mother supported the programs.
“It depends what kind of parents we are, but naturally I must be free with my daughters to speak about sex because it is very much important,” Rebecca said. “They must know everything about sex, even at school, no problem, we don’t have any problem about that.”
The controversy continues, but has gained new urgency with the latest increase in teen pregnancy.