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PREGNANCY among teen pupils is still a big problem for many local schools that believe they are fighting a losing battle, with some reporting as many as 20 pregnant teens in their schools each year.
Despite vigorous campaigns on sex education, as well as regular efforts to bring in nongovernmental organisations to give talks and engage with their pupils, school principals said girls continue to fall pregnant.
A South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS) conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 2002 to look at the prevalence of behaviours that place secondary school pupils at risk for disease and ill health, painted a bleak picture about the sexual behaviour of teens in school.
It found that a substantial number of young people are engaging in unprotected sex. The study also revealed that one in three teenagers had become pregnant by the age of 19. It was further concluded that 11% of pregnancy terminations were by women under 18 years old.
Nationally, 24,4% of the girls surveyed in the same study in 2008 admitted to having been pregnant. This was 5,3% more than when the study was conducted six years earlier. In 2002 KwaZulu-Natal accounted for 21,8% of the interviewed girls who admitted to falling pregnant, while the figure stood at 25,8% in 2008.
Data for the 2008 survey was collected from 10 270 pupils from Grades 8 to 11 from two randomly selected classes within the 192 randomly selected schools country wide.
Even more startling, Marie Stopes, a sexual and reproductive health nongovernmental organisation, reports having terminated 2 746 pregnancies of teenagers between 12 to 18 years old nationally.
While data suggest that there has been substantial improvement in the epidemic of teenage pregnancies, the people on the ground believe otherwise.
A principal of a high school in Imbali, who spoke on condition that he is not named, said most of the pregnancies occur in pupils in Grade 10, followed by Grades 11 and 12.
“The rate is still very high. There is no change. We regularly call NGOs and we talk about this ourselves and the dangers of unprotected sex at assembly. Pupils attend life orientation classes where they receive sex education. Sometimes it really looks like pregnancies are planned. What we say seems to be falling on deaf ears.”
The principal told the paper that with 600 girls at his school, an average of 15 pupils fall pregnant a year, which affects the school’s performance.
“As a school we reached a resolution that the girls can get a month off after delivering, depending on their health, before they come back to school. Rarely do they choose the option of taking the whole year off. They usually want to come back but their performance is never the same again.”
One principal said that in many instances these babies are not fathered by schoolboys.
“When they fall pregnant and you call the parents in, you find out that these girls are in relationships with older men who can give them money,” he said.
Another principal, frustrated by the high levels of pregnancies at her school, said last year they had 21 pregnant pupils out of 340 enrolled girls. She said on average, no fewer than 20 girls fall pregnant in a year.
“Their school work does get affected because they have to attend clinics and closer towards delivery time attendance becomes even more irregular,” she added.
While the Department of Education encourages schools to take homework to these pregnant girls, this female principal refuses. She believes the onus should be on the pregnant girl and her parents to fetch the work from the school, which she said never happens.
The rights of young girls who fall pregnant are enshrined in the Constitution and Schools Act of 1996, which say that they should not be denied access to education. While the Department of Education gives guidelines which advocate for the rights of the pregnant girls, they also suggest a two- year waiting period before girls return to school in the interests of the rights of the children they carry, according to the Measures for Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy released in 2007.
KZN Department of Education spokesperson, Sihle Mlotshwa said no one district is worse than the other in terms of teen pregnancies. He said the Education Service Delivery Support Services Sub-directorate in each of these districts deals with all the psychosocial issues, including issues related to pregnancy. Through life orientation, pupils are taught that there are always social, economic, health and educational consequences related to the quality of decisions they make in life.
The Department of Education says while political and media depictions imply that teen pregnancy is still high in the country, available data suggest that they have progressively diminished since 1994.
This appears to be supported by MRC’s survey. The second YRBS found that compared with a similar survey in 2002, there has been progress in diminishing risky sexual behaviour among teens, although there remains room for improvement.
The survey revealed a decline in the number of teenagers between Grades 8 to 11 having sex from 41% in 2002 to 38% in 2008.
The study suggests that attempts to include sexual education in schools have had limited success as the above principals have complained, a result of discrepancies in implementation in different schools.
Jock Strachan, the marketing manager for Marie Stopes Clinics in South Africa, also believes that as a society that tends to shy away from topics related to sex and sexual health, a change in attitude is necessary if we are to turn South Africa’s rising teenage pregnancy statistics around.
According to Strachan, a study published in the Reproductive Health last week set out to explore the assumption that parents in Africa don’t talk about sexual and reproductive health with their children. While he said the study found there was parent-to-child communication in most families, it usually took the form of warnings, threats and physical discipline. He said this is in contrast to what happens in European countries where sexual intercourse in teens from ages 15 to 16 is considered part of normal teenage behaviour.
Also, Strachan said a 2001 Guttmacher Institute report drawing data from 30 countries concluded that societal acceptance of sexual activity among young people, combined with comprehensive and balanced information about sexuality, are hallmarks of countries with low levels of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
Of the 2 746 teenagers between 12 to 18, who visited Marie Stopes Clinics throughout the country last year, Strachan said a large number of these teens were unaware of their contraceptive options and how to access them.
He believes this suggests a gap in sex education.
* Of the 10 270 pupils sampled, black pupils were leading in the prevalence of pupils who had had sex by 39.3% compared to coloured pupils at 32%, whites 22.8% and Indian at 17.1%.
* By grade 8, 17.8% of the boys sampled had impregnated a girl nationally, while 22.6% of the grade 8 boys surveyed had fathered a child. This in comparison to 15.1% grade 8 girls nationally who admitted to have fallen pregnant before and 13.6% of sampled grade 8 girls with babies nationally.
* Of the sampled girls, Coloured girls had the highest prevalence of pregnancies at 28.7%, as well as the highest number of girls with babies compared to other races nationally.
* KZN came up third at 25.8% in the number of girls surveyed who have fallen pregnant, beaten only by the Eastern Cape at 30.9% and Limpopo at 28.6%.
* The study found that the prevalence of pupils having ever had sex increased with age. More pupils in grade 11, 52.1 %, reported to having had sex than the 24.9% pupils in grade 8.
* KZN reported the lowest prevalence of pupils having sex after consumption of alcohol at 12.5%, which was lower than the national average of 16.2%.
• From the 2008 South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey conducted by the Medical Research Council