In Africa as elsewhere, many schools have shut classes due to COVID-19. With more girls at home, teenage pregnancies have spiked in some nations.
A new-born baby in Chiradzulu, southern Malawi, 26 May 2021 (AP Photo/Thoko Chikondi)
In much of the world, COVID-19 has disrupted young people’s schooling, disturbed their psychological well-being by keeping them cooped up at home and, lately, infected them in increasing numbers.
In many African countries, however, the pandemic has precipitated another worrying consequence: a rise in teenage or child pregnancies directly linked to school closings that governments have ordered to curb the spread of the virus.
A report by relief, development and advocacy organisation World Vision said that since March of last year, efforts to rein in the pandemic have led to school closures in 194 countries, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners, or more than 90% of the world’s school-going population.
Noting that girls in many countries have difficulty staying in school in the best of circumstances, World Vision said the pandemic had caused additional, unanticipated disruption, with very little likelihood that vulnerable children will be able to continue their education afterwards.
It gets worse.
Teenage pregnancies have risen 60% in part of South Africa.
New data last month showed that in South Africa’s Gauteng province, the country’s most populous, the number of babies born to teen mothers in the region had jumped 60% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a presentation to parliament, the Gauteng health department said that more than 23,000 girls under 18 had given birth between April 2020 and March this year, 934 of them aged below 14 years. That compared with 14,577 girls under 20 who had babies in the same period a year earlier.
“The global pandemic risks being a time of irreversible setbacks and lost progress for girls,” said Marumo Sekgobela, health and nutrition manager of the South African unit of global aid group Save the Children.
“Unless we act fast and decisively, the impact on girls’ futures – and on all our futures – will be devastating. There has never been a more important time to empower teenagers to take control of their sexual health and stay safe.”
Save the Children said a key factor contributing to sexual and reproductive health risks that adolescents face in South Africa is a lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education or to affordable and appropriate health services.
Schools are a form of protection.
In deeply conservative Zimbabwe, where getting pregnant while in school previously led to automatic expulsion, authorities have relaxed the rule because a large number of young girls fell pregnant during the coronavirus-enforced closure of schools.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government says nearly 5,000 teenage girls became pregnant in January and February alone, while about 1,800 entered early marriages during the same period, most of them in the poorest of suburbs of the southern African country.
To stem a tidal wave of school drop-outs in a country that has long prided itself on its well-educated population even as its economic fortunes deteriorate, Mnangagwa last year signed amendments to the Education Act prohibiting state schools from banning pregnant students.
In equally conservative Ghana, where girls often do not have access to contraception and abortion is banned except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s health is in danger, activists say unwanted teenage pregnancy soared after authorities closed schools for 10 months to try and curb COVID-19 infections.
Sarah Lotus Asare, who volunteers with disadvantaged teenage girls in the West African country, told Agence France-Press that schools were a form of protection and when they were shut, many youths “found themselves idle, without adults to supervise them.”
COVID lockdowns meant more children were at home.
Teenage pregnancy is certainly not unique to Africa — globally, an estimated 15% of young women give birth before they turn 18 — but the continent accounts for the bulk of young mothers, often as a direct result of a lack of access to school.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than one in four young girls, or 26%, give birth before the age of 18 in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to just over 11% in South Asia.
The COVID-19 pandemic is leading to more teenage pregnancies, UNICEF said, particularly among migrant and displaced children who have felt the fallout from school closures more intensely.
“Vulnerable migrant and displaced children are now at heightened risk of dropping out of school, and many girls on the move will never return to the classroom,” it said.
In countries like South Africa, girls as young as 10 years old have become pregnant over the past 18 months. Often they are left on their own at home while their parents, who cannot afford appropriate childcare, go out to work. In many cases, girls have fallen victim to male relatives living in the same house, or to neighbours.
“School does act as a protector of sorts. If you come from an abusive home, which is unfortunately the story of many of these pregnant children, school does offer that buffer where you get a reprieve from the abuse or very toxic environment,” said Matshepo Dibetso, whose non-profit organisation Agape Youth Movement advocates for the rights of children in South Africa.
“With the COVID-19 lockdown, many of these children — and here I’m focusing on the 10-to-14-year-olds who were reported to be pregnant — were home a lot, and I think that’s what we should be focusing on. Who were they home with, and what was the environment?” she told News Decoder.
The Agape Youth Movement last week hosted a webinar on the topic, in collaboration with the government Communications Department, which Dibetso said she hopes will start a national dialogue on how to create safe spaces for children in a country with one of the highest incidents of violence against women and children in the world.
Three questions to consider:
- Why has COVID-19 led to an increase in unwanted teenage pregnancies in some countries?
- Has the number of pregnancies among teenage girls risen in your country during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- What strategy would you propose to combat unwanted teenage pregnancies?
Stella Mapenzauswa is a Johannesburg-based journalist, media consultant and trainer who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, namely in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi, for more than two decades.