Fight Sexism to Help Young Mothers – South Africa

“My mother was surprised that my breasts were getting bigger, and told me to go to the clinic to take a pregnancy test. The nurses told me I was pregnant and so I cried. I cried because I thought I was too young to have a baby and I thought I wouldn’t manage.”

Asanda*, from a rural village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, was in grade 11 when she became pregnant.

Although she did not want to have sex, her boyfriend put a lot of pressure on her, and eventually she yielded. Aged 17, all she had heard about contraceptives was that people who used them were girls “who slept around and had lots of boyfriends.”

Four out of ten South African girls become pregnant at least once before the age of 20, according to South African academics Agnes Chigona and Rajendra Chetty – and Asanda seemed destined to join the ranks of pregnant pupils who drop out of school even before their babies are born – mostly due to the stigma attached to being a mother

But Asanda made it to grade 12, the final year of school in South Africa, before giving birth to a baby girl.

Chigona and Chetty say that in a country where women make up 61 percent of the uneducated adult population, teenage pregnancy is one of the main obstacles to young women’s educational success.

Giving birth to a child marks the end of formal education for many young mothers, and those who return to school after giving birth often drop out if their children fall ill and need their mothers to take care of them at home.

Many teachers are just not willing to help one or two students catch up on the work they have missed.

Asanda went back to school soon after giving birth. “I continued with my education but I had too much pressure on me, I had to look after the baby and I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night because I was breastfeeding and the baby was crying all night. I couldn’t cope, so I failed grade 12,” she said.

Apart from dealing with the needs of the new born baby, Asanda had to deal with bad attitudes from some of her teachers. When she fell asleep in class some teachers would embarrass her by shouting at her and telling her that she chose to have a baby and so she must not expect to be treated differently.

“I had a low self-esteem. I did not feel enthusiastic about school, in fact I felt discouraged,” says Asanda.

She dropped out for a year, but returned to school when her daughter turned two and passed matric. Two years later, she enrolled for a BA degree in Fort Hare university, where she is about to complete her first year.

Asanda, now 22, will give birth to her second baby next month. Although this will surely interrupt her education once again, her determination and the support of her mother, a general worker at the university, might be enough to see her through her degree.

Although the election of president Jacob Zuma in April this year saw for the creation of a new ministry for “women, children and people with disabilities,” the South African government has yet to articulate any plan for the country’s high school mothers.

While on the election campaign trail earlier this year, Zuma said that teenaged mothers should be sent away to boarding schools after giving birth – without their children – and not allowed back until they have a degree.

Experts say his off the cuff remark shows that young women are still being blamed for falling pregnant – and the humiliation they attach to this blame is a further obstacle to getting through high school.

Neliswa* describes herself as a 17 year old virgin who got pregnant the first time she had sex. Then a grade 11 student in the city of Cape Town, she said she felt ashamed of being pregnant because she “was the only hope in the family”.

“I was the only young woman in my family who had managed not to get pregnant until the age of 17,” she told IPS.

After giving birth, Neliswa married the father of her child and went back to school, but failed grade 12. “I couldn’t concentrate, I kept thinking about my baby. I didn’t think that other people could look after my child the way I wanted.”

Teachers asked her why she had “put herself in this situation in the first place”, and she dropped out. She has a supportive husband, who wants her to return to school, but says she is taking time out to “find herself”.

She is involved in the “Girl Child Movement”, a project of the Children’s Resource Centre, and is now employed managing the centre’s health programme, which teaches young girls and boys basic personal hygiene.

“The centre helps me a lot. It keeps me involved in my community. They sent us to a lot of empowering trainings, and I like working with people from diverse communities,” Neliswa says.

Children’s Resource Centre director, and founder member of the Girl Child Movement, Marcus Solomons, says the solution to the growing number of teenage pregnancies is sex education, sports facilities and other extra-curricular activities to keep people occupied.

“If people don’t have anything like participating in sports, they are going occupy themselves with sex. Sex is the best occupation, day and night, and on weekends,” Solomons says.

This must go along with building a “culture of anti-sexism”. Building girls’ self esteem and bringing young fathers into the loop is critical in dispelling the stigma that continues to be attached to teenage mothers – the same stigma that makes Neliswa feel “allergic to school”, Solomons says.

The Girl Child Movement has trained 350 children as food gardeners “to ensure that children learn to feed themselves in the context of grinding poverty”, and over 1,000 girls and boys in anti-racism, anti-bullying and anti-sexism – which help girls avoid unwanted pregnancies that disrupt their education.

“We teach a girl that if she wants to become a pilot instead of a mother, she can do that.”

*Not her real name


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