Educating young girls about pregnancy

Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood looks at the health education young girls receive and the issue of teenage pregnancy in South Africa.

Are young girls taught enough about their body, pregnancy and other health related issues at a young enough age?

Recent statistics released by the Department of Education highlighted the high number of young school girls falling pregnant. There are concerns regarding the number of pregnant girls in grades 3 to 5. Between 2014 and 2016 there were approximately 193 reported pregnancies for young girls in grades 3 to 5. This number increases dramatically if girls in grades 6 and 7 are included, bringing it to about 1,449. However, the figures for all provinces have not yet been made available.

In a statement, Minster for Basic Education Angie Motshekga, noted: “Teenage pregnancy impacts the lives of thousands of young people, often limiting their personal growth, the pursuit of rewarding careers and their ambitions, with incalculable impact on South Africa’s socio-economic systems.

“Pregnant learners undermine the Department of Basic Education’s endeavour to ensure that all learners remain in school for the duration of their schooling especially girls so that they can have an opportunity to improve their quality of life.”

Education: Reproductive and general health

Reproductive and sexual health does form a part of the national curriculum. Sonja Boshoff, deputy provincial leader of Mpumalanga and political head of Thaba Chweu and Emakhazeni Constituency for the Democratic Alliance (DA), explains: “The National Curriculum Statement provides for comprehensive Life Skills programmes in the Learning Area Life Orientation, which is compulsory from Grade R to 12. Life Skills Education is a programme that deals with topics that affect each and every learner and educator.”

Among the many topics that are covered within the Life Skills programme are:

  • Human sexuality
  • Developing and maintain self-esteem
  • Interpersonal and decision-making skills, including communication skills, negotiating abstinence, assertiveness, and dealing with peer pressure
  • Teenage pregnancy, including contributory factors, consequences, and prevention
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Sexual abuse, including the “touch continuum”, gender-based violence, incest and rape

Boshoff adds: “Unfortunately I have not sat in a class to see what the content of these lessons are and whether the educators are able to come across with a clear message.”

Dr Lauren Stretch, managing director of teen pregnancy prevention programme Early Inspiration, notes that health education regarding the reproductive system is only discussed from grade 7. However, as the recent statistics highlight, there are cases of girls falling pregnant from grade 3.

According to Stretch, Dr Faith Kumalo, the Department of Basic Education’s Chief Director for Care and Support in Schools, reportedly said that evidence tells us that we need to have comprehensive sex education before sexual debut.

“With respect to sex education and life skills, it must happen before sexual debut in primary school and Grade R – obviously in an age appropriate manner. We can never start too soon,” stated Kumalo.

Does more need to be done?

In addition to the above areas that are covered in the current curriculum at schools, Boshoff says: “The Department of Basic Education must strive to guide schools in dealing with learner pregnancy. Every school must have a pregnancy policy in place that is aligned with the Department of Basic Education policy and they must adhere to this policy and not deviate from it.

“Schools must have the services of a dedicated teacher who is trained in the field of counselling, support and must know what advice should be given to this learner to ensure that she returns to school to complete her basic education.”

Stretch reveals that following from the high numbers of teenage pregnancies, Early Inspiration launched the Sand Babies Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy Programme among grade 8 and 9 learners.

“Through our various interventions, teenage pregnancy has been highlighted as a real challenge facing schools, communities and the future generations of South Africa. Early Inspiration’s focus is on developing and supporting children in the early years (birth to six years) but we have found in many communities throughout the Eastern Cape, that the number of children in early childhood have teenage parents is astronomical. This is a huge concern for us and the future of South Africa,” notes Stretch.

Jessica Baker, Early Inspiration’s Parent Programme Manager highlights: “An analysis of current Provincial trends shows a concentration of learner pregnancies in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.”

Early Inspiration emphasises that the overall impact of teenage pregnancy on young women’s educational achievement is driven by the timing of the pregnancy and the manner in which the young woman and her family respond to the pregnancy. Prevention and early intervention becomes a necessity. Teenagers should be informed in order to make decisions which are healthy and safe.

Society plays a role

Boshoff notes that pregnancy is a societal issue. “We need the buy in of families, friends etc. “Charity starts at home,” to state it bluntly. Unfortunately, many of the learners are left to their own devices or come from child headed households and fall prey to the “sugar daddy” phenomenon. We therefore need to see more NGO’s where family planning services are provided – not only for those that are pregnant, but also give guidance to these young women on the consequences of sexual relationships.”

She adds: “As many of our learners are of a tender age, these learners need extra care and nurturing with regard to the change of her body, the delivery, the upbringing of the child and this is where a partnership between the Departments of Basic Education, Social Development and Health will come to play an important role. This assistance must however also be available to our older learners.”

Stretch points out that the Integrated School Health Policy (ISHP) states that children in the foundation phase (grades R-3) receive health education on topics such as ‘Know your body’ and ‘abuse’ (sexual, physical and emotional abuse). Children in the intermediate phase (grades 4-6) receive education on abuse and puberty.

“Health education is a critical component of the ISHP, and provides the best opportunity to impact on the immediate and long-term health behaviour of children. Health education is incorporated into the school curriculum and provided through the Life Orientation learning areas. However, life skills teaching should be supplemented with additional co-curricular/school-based activities especially in secondary schools where the time tabling may not provide adequate time to fully address issues related to sexual and reproductive health as well as other health and social issues.”

Steps to prevent pregnancy

When asked if she was aware of any programmes in place to offer contraception or other preventatives to young school girls to prevent unwanted pregnancies, Boshoff responded saying she has not seen any programmes in place except for the Life Skills and Life Orientation subjects that form part of the curriculum.

She adds: “I know some time ago the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi called for integrated contraception on school grounds. He also brought teenage-friendly contraceptives into public clinics. He is of the opinion that parents and the broader society has to accept the sexual activities of their children to assist in curbing the problem.

“We need to ensure the buy in of all parents, guardians, traditional leaders, religious leaders, SAPS, community organisations and youth formations. Through their buy in we could raise awareness of the problem.”

Boshoff concludes: “I would like to add that I am very worried that the department does not have any system in place to track how many learners who do fall pregnant, return to school to complete their education. This is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We cannot allow any girl learner to fall through the cracks due to the lack of counselling and support. This support would have to include inter alia extra lessons to catch up on worked missed while on “maternity leave”.

“Education is the key to the future successes and without it these young girls will not have a fair chance of a better life.”