Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) applauds The Times for publishing an opinion piece entitled“Shifting our expectations” (01/09/2009, p. 19) by Marion Stevens, who manages the Women and HIV Gauge at the Health Systems Trust. The piece demystifies some of the myths around teenage pregnancy in South Africa, with empirical evidence, based on research. It also discusses teenage pregnancy in the context of race, culture, abortion, comprehensive sexuality education and condoms. The piece raises issues that media could further engage in and holds government accountable for its role in dealing with teen pregnancy.

The opinion piece derives from a seminar held by the Department of Basic Education on teenage fertility. The seminar was held after the news that a teenage girl had given birth in a toilet at a school near Pretoria, South Africa.

The article provides statistics on teenage fertility. It records that teenage fertility rates have declined since 1996, to 54 babies born per 1000 teenage girls in 2007. For Stevens these rates are lowest in the region, yet remain unacceptably high.

One of the myths around teenage pregnancy is that it directly results in school drop-out. However, for Stevens, pregnancy results from, rather than causes, dropping-out. Furthermore, she highlights, pregnancy and dropping-out are likely results of poor school performance and poverty. Stevens also states that despite liberal policies, only about a third of teenage mothers return to school.

Another myth regarding teenage pregnancy is that most girls fall pregnant so that they can get the child support grant from the government. However, the article contends that there is no empirical evidence linking teenage fertility and child support grants. In fact, it highlights, there is a low uptake of the grant by teenage mothers.

According to the article, teenage girls display high levels of knowledge around contraception, yet incorrect and inconsistent use persists, which makes them vulnerable to HIV and pregnancy.

Using statistics on condom distribution among teenagers over the age of 15 in 2007, Stevens reveals disparities between provinces. For instance, 50 male condoms were distributed to each male teenager in the Western Cape, while those in Gauteng received eight.

With regards to abortion, Stevens argues that the issue of access needs to be reviewed in collaboration with the Department for Health because designated surgical services have decreased from 60% to 43% due to health system constraints, and demand outstrips supply.

Based on the research and statistics, referred to in the article, Stevens contends that the Department of Education has committed itself to using evidence to inform its work.

Overall, this opinion piece provides a good example of the way in which newspapers can contribute to a more informed debate by giving space to experts. It raises issues that media could carry forward and engage government on, in relation to comprehensive sexuality education in schools. MMA applauds and encourages media to give space to such research based opinion pieces as The Times did.