Only around half of all pupils finish school in South Africa. Education experts are concerned that one of the main reasons, along with poverty, is the country’s high rate of teenage pregnancy. Each year, around 180 out of every 1,000 students become pregnant. Unable to cope with raising a baby and keeping up with their studies, many teenage mothers leave school.
In some cases, pregnant teenagers have been asked to leave by school authorities. Many schools feel ill-equipped to deal with the situation, with teachers arguing that they are not trained to support expectant mothers. But recently, a Constitutional Court ruling in South Africa has confirmed schools cannot expel students for becoming pregnant. Nevertheless, this still occurs in some rural areas, where expelled students may not be aware of their rights.
Even where students continue in their education, they face many problems. Talking to the BBC, one 17 year-old explained how it’s usual for girls to become “an outcast” once their peers know they are pregnant. A spokesperson for one of the South African Democratic Teachers Union confirmed this frequently happens and said “teachers are confronted with situations where learners are stigmatised by other students, where the pregnant pupil becomes emotionally ostracised and [a teacher’s] call of duty now extends to that of being a nurse [and] a social worker”.
The high number of early pregnancies is also of concern for health reasons. Younger girls struggle to deliver naturally since their pelvises are still small and not yet fully mature. This increases the risk of labour interventions such as Caesarean sections and childbirth complications such as haemorrhaging. Experts admit that the high number of teenage pregnancies raises mortality rates. Teenage mothers account for 36% of maternal deaths each year in South Africa, though they only make up 8% of births.
Health officials are also worried that young girls are putting themselves at risk of catching HIV/AIDS, often persuaded into having unprotected sex by older partners. South Africa has the largest number of people living with AIDS in the world (at 5.6 million). Despite widespread awareness campaigns, young women are proving particularly vulnerable, with HIV infection rates among women aged 15-24 twice as high as those for young men of the same age.
By Laurinda Luffman for SOS Children