Zuma on teenage mums; ship them off to Robben Island and force them to complete school

Even though the stereotype of the teenage mother is one of a student, the reality in most of Africa is starkly different.

SOUTH African president Jacob Zuma caused outrage this week when he said that teenage mothers should be taken to “Robben Island or any other island” and forced to compete their schooling there, away from their children.

It’s the second time that Zuma is making the controversial statements, the first time was in 2009.

Being shipped off to Robben Island will empower the mothers to take care of their children better once they come back armed with an education; presumably, home has too many distractions.

He also argued that it would reduce on the state social welfare handouts – South Africa gives a cash grant of about R300 ($25) a month to teenage mothers, which is supposed to be for meeting the children’s needs. But he said that many girls were spending the money to do their hair in salons instead.

 “We make you take care of your kid so that we don’t have to give a grant, and that is my view,” Zuma said.

Later, a statement from his office clarified that he did not mean to single out only girls.

“President Zuma was emphasising the need for teenagers to focus on their studies and said children should not be raising children,” spokesperson Mac Maharaj said in a statement.

Tellingly, the clarification did not take back the position that banishing teenagers to a far off island is actually unsuitable, only that he was not picking on the girls – even if women, by far, are the primary caregivers of children.

So it’s revealing that the problem in South Africa, according to Zuma, is that teenage mothers are refusing to return to school after having their babies, so that they can have hair salon money. 

Pregnant girls and school

But in much of Africa, you wouldn’t have to persuade girls to return to school - they are prevented from doing so by school regulations, although official government policy might state otherwise.

School regulations in Tanzania, for example, expel students for getting pregnant, and they are then permanently excluded from government schools. According to this report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, they cannot be readmitted to either the same or a different government school after giving birth. Some wealthier families are able to send their daughters to private schools, but the majority end up looking for casual work.

In Uganda on the other hand, while there is no specific policy for retention of pregnant girls and re-entry of teenage mothers in school, there is no legal or policy position preventing it either.

In any case, South Africa has much handwringing about teenage sex. Two years ago, sections of the country’s Sexual Offences Act 2007 had to be struck down by the country’s Constitutional Court; the law criminalised consensual sex between teenagers, and made it possible for teens to be prosecuted and registered as sex offenders for consensually engaging in any sexual activity, from French kissing to oral sex or penetrative sex. 

Under the law at the time, if a teenage girl fell pregnant and visited her doctor, her doctor was obliged to report her to the police. Incredibly, if she was raped and she could not prove that the sex was not consensual, she could be charged with statutory rape of the boy.

The state argued that it had a right to prevent teenage pregnancies, but in a unanimous judgment, Judge Sisi Khampepe said that those sections of the law were unconstitutional as they infringed on the rights of adolescents to dignity and privacy, and criminalising what is developmentally normal behaviour could have a negative effect on the children the law was meant to protect.

Non-consensual sexual acts with or between children of any age remains illegal and is prosecutable under the law.

What the numbers say

But does the data back up Zuma’s position? Does teenage childbearing negatively affect a woman’s education and the well-being of her children?

It seems like a no-brainer – of course it does. Numerous studies have confirmed so, one in Western Cape, South Africa showed that teen mothers (women who have their first child before the age of 20) lag two-thirds of a year behind in schooling, on average; are 25 percentage points more likely to drop out of high school; and are 20 percentage points less likely to graduate from school before age 22.

In Cape Town, 4% of children of older mothers are born smaller than 2.5kg, while 17% of children of teen mothers are. Similarly, 18% of children of older mothers are shorter than they should be for their age (an indication of poor diet), while for children of teen mums, its 37%.

But it could be more complex than that. It is possible that young mothers are a select group who would have attained low levels of education and limited employment even if they postponed childbearing, as teenage mothers tend to come from poorer backgrounds, the researchers say. 

Also, the poor health outcomes associated with teenage child-bearing might well be the result of the poverty in which these girls lived prior to becoming pregnant.

Different reality

Furthermore, even though the stereotype of the teenage mother is one of a student, the reality in most of Africa is starkly different.

Most teenage mums in Africa drop out of school before they get pregnant, and not necessarily as a result of the pregnancy.

In fact, a staggering 90% of pregnant 15-19-year-olds in Africa are actually married or living with a partner, unlike in the West where teenage pregnancies almost always occur outside marriage.

Because so many adolescent pregnancies in Africa happen within the context of marriage, it is no surprise that the countries with the highest teen births also have the highest numbers of child brides. 

In Chad and Niger, more than one in three girls are married before their 15th birthday. In Ethiopia, one in six girls is married by the age of 15. 

The data also does not support the claim that girls in South Africa intentionally get pregnant so that they can claim the grant. This article by Africa Check calls it a “pervasive urban myth; research done on the subject had shown that just 15.5% of the teens who participated in the study said they fell pregnant in order to access the grant, concluding that it was a “popular myth that teenagers become pregnant for the perverse incentive of accessing the child support grant”, neither was a ‘terrible trend’ developing.

Africa Check reported that the grants are being spent on food, education and basic goods and services; children who were enrolled on the grant at birth stay at school longer and are less likely to suffer ill-health than those who only access this financial support later in childhood. 

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