Rates of teenage pregnancy in South Africa are among the highest in the world, yet the reasons for this problem are often misunderstood and riddled with myths and stereotypes about teenage girls. However, the Mail & Guardian, health section (04/10/2011, p1) article ‘Teenage moms learn the hard way’ by Katherine Child points to deep underlying social problems.  The article reveals that teenage pregnancy results from a complex set of varied and interrelated factors, largely associated with the social conditions under which children grow up. The article also unearths and debunks myths surrounding contraceptives and child grants being blamed for high rates of teenage pregnancy in South Africa. For these and other reasons discussed below, the article deserves a Glad .

The article is a culmination of research conducted by the journalist in rural KwaZulu-Natal with the support of the Anthony Sampson Foundation. It gives a human face to teenage pregnancy through telling of the story of a teenage mother who is determined to finish school and go to university.

The journalist accesses the teenage mother, who reveals that she lives in a traditional community where issues of sex and sexuality are not discussed. As a result, “the silence about sexuality leads to confusion. Mothers don’t speak to their children about sex, which means myths flourish.”

The article contends that “one of the most commonly heard myths is that a woman must test her fertility before using birth control.” This means that teenagers then have children before they start using contraceptives. Added to that, contraception is often stigmatised and may be denied to women.  For instance nurses may deny contraception to girls who haven’t had children at public clinics.

The article also shows that even in instances where teenagers know about contraceptives, they may find it difficult to access them at public clinics due to the stigma around contraception. Unlike teenagers living in poor communities, teenagers who are well-off may have easier access to contraceptives through private clinics because they can afford it.

Another myth around teenage pregnancy is that the incidence has increased since the inception of child grants. However, the article is quick to point that “as much as grants play a role, they are not the only reason teenagers have babies.” It augments this argument by highlighting that teenage mothers often say they became pregnant “by mistake.” Further, teenage mothers may not get child grants because they often do not have identity documents, a common problem in the rural areas.

The article gives further context to the issue by accessing social workers, nurses and educators who put teenage pregnancy into context. By consulting a variety of sources a holistic view of teenage pregnancy is presented and reader can understand the issue with all its concomitant complexities.

Perhaps if the journalist had accessed boys and spoke about the role of teenage fathers, the readers would have been more informed about the issue. However, one may argue that talking about teenage fathers could be a topic to be discussed on its own just like teenage mothers were discussed in the article. Be that as it may, a close reading of the article reveals that:

• When young people grow up in areas where poverty is entrenched, such as in rural areas, they are at greater risk of falling pregnant early;
• When stigma about adolescent sexuality and contraceptives abound, few opportunities exist for open communication about sex and contraception with parents, and access to judgement-free health services is constrained; and
• Teenage pregnancy is more than a teenage issue – it is a social issue, related to poverty, class, parenting and education and it requires broad participation from various stakeholders in order to curb it.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) therefore applauds the Mail & Guardian and Katherine Child for the job well done on the coverage of teenage pregnancy. We hope that other media could learn and emulate such coverage so that society may be better informed of the issues affecting it.

1 As part of their efforts to support human rights in the media, MMA identifies items which violate or uphold the rights of children on a weekly basis.  A ‘Glad’ reflects that this story was the best of those newspapers available in Johannesburg of the week.