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Schoolgirls hold up their hands while teachers face them

Covid-19 lockdown pregnancies: How South Africa is fighting to keep girls in school

School lockdowns were designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but in some cases they exacerbated inequality and gender-based abuse. Now, South Africa must reconsider its approach to teen pregnancy in order to prevent a lost generation of students.

“It is painful and heart- breaking watching a child become a mother. Children should be children not birthing other children. Because I could not afford to buy her a phone or a laptop, he took advantage of that!”, says 64-year-old Nosipo Murweri whose 13-year-old granddaughter Mbali* was reportedly raped and impregnated by a 32-year-old man from their neighborhood.

Unbias the News caught up with Murweri on an early morning in November as she joined the queue at Matale police station, situated in Cullinan village, Gauteng Province in South Africa (SA).

Murweri has been frequenting the police station since March last year, following up on Mbali’s rape case, but the police have only been “adding salt to her wound.”

“Despite having told the police who the perpetrator was, nothing has been done. No arrest up to this day. The pain is even worse when I see him roaming the streets and my little girl dropped out of school because he impregnated her. She cries when she sees others going to or coming back from school. She feels like she is doomed,” said Murweri.

Mbali is just one of the 750,000 children who dropped out of school in South Africa between January 2020 and May 2021 due to learning disruptions caused by the Covid 19 pandemic.

Another epidemic

By May 2021, the number of school-aged children not attending classes was approximately 650,000-750,000, a jump of 4-500,000 from pre-pandemic times, according to education researchers.

NIDS-CRAM Study
"10% of adults report that at least one learner in their household had not returned to school in 2021, something that is strongly related to parent worry, household location, and poverty status"
The study continues: "under conservative assumptions one can say that 650,000 to 750,000 children aged 7 to 17 years old were not attending school by May 2021. This represents an increase in the number of absent learners of approximately 400,000 – 500,000 when compared to ‘normal’ times, and a decline in the attendance rate amongst this age group from 98% to 93.4 - 94.2%."
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Although reasons for dropping out range from familial struggles, to involvement in drugs and gang initiation, the pandemic precipitated a worrying consequence: the rise in teenage pregnancies directly linked to school closings that were aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

Gauteng province alone recorded 23,000 births by girls under the age of 18 between April 2020 and May 2021, with 934 of them below the age of 13. 

Figures shown to Unbias the News by the organization indicate that seven out of the country’s 10 provinces recorded more than double the number of teenage pregnancies during the pandemic.

Gauteng province is home to nearly 15 million people, a quarter of the country’s population and home to the country’s largest city Johannesburg as well as the administrative capital Pretoria.

“Unless we act fast and decisively, the impact on girls’ futures and all our futures will be devastating,” said Marumo Sekgobela, spokesperson for Save The Children.

 

“Save the Children has embarked on a program together with the government to ensure that adolescents have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services,” added Sekgobela.

Rahima Essop, Head of Communications and Advocacy at Zero Dropout Campaign, an organization that aims to halve the number of South Africa’s school dropouts by 2030, says the pandemic made children from poorer communities “more vulnerable to dropping out of school.”

Students from the most vulnerable households are at highest risk of dropping out of school. If we don’t find ways to support these learners through school, we effectively trap them in cycles of inter-generational poverty and social exclusion, which often re-inscribe racial and gender inequalities. Over the course of the Covid-19 lockdown, the highest rates of dropouts have been among the poorest households in rural areas.

Rahima Essop, Zero Dropout Campaign

Though she could not give the exact statistics, Essop noted that African and Black students constitute the highest number of dropouts, as compared to white and Indian South African students.

A Digital Divide

According to Statistics South Africa (STS SA) more than 2.2  million jobs were lost as a result of the economy shutting down during the lockdown period, further straining budgets in most households and making it difficult for some families to keep their children in school.

Although schools managed to carry on using online resources and dividing attendance days, more than 50% of children in rural communities could not afford online learning due to lack of digital resources including data and gadgets. 

“Parents struggle to provide fees, transport, and school supplies due to the hardships exacerbated by the global pandemic. Because most schools resorted to online learning during lockdown periods, poorer communities could not afford these, hence children from these communities were left out and some of them subsequently dropped out of school,” Minister of Basic Education Matsie Angelina Motshekga told Unbias the News.

Section 29 of the country’s constitution states that every person in South Africa has the right to a basic education and the Constitutional Court states that access to school, which must include attendance, is a “necessary condition” to the fulfillment of the right to basic education.

Although education is free in some public schools, demand for enrolment into non-paying schools is high. Not everyone is accommodated.

There are 13 million children in Grades 1 to 12 in South Africa but the pandemic pushed school attendance to its lowest level in 20 years.

Minister Motshekga noted that the country’s “Eastern Cape province had the highest number of dropouts, followed by the Free-state Province.”

These provinces mainly consist of rural set-ups.

Aggravating Inequality

The pandemic has proven to be nothing but a messenger of irreversible setbacks, inflicting permanent and visible scars on the lives of many girls in South Africa and the world at large.

It has exposed the extent to which inequalities and poverty are aggravating gender-based violence against girls.

“I last went to school in March 2020. Schools were being closed abruptly due to Covid 19 lockdowns. Others were doing lessons from home using laptops or smart phone but I have neither of these at home,” Mbali added. “Because I was eager to catch up with my fellow classmates, I would go to Muchuzi (the accused rapist) to ask for his phone so that I could attend online classes. He would give me the phone but after a month, he told me that I have to pay him back by sleeping with him.”

“This happened many times until June (2020) when I discovered that I was pregnant,” Mbali continued. “My grandmother told the Village Head and they both went to approach him but he denied it. That is when we went to the police and we were told that I should have reported the matter the first time it happened,” a tearful Mbali explained.

Early pregnancy in the country forces many girls to drop out of school and can leave them stigmatized by society for being teenage mothers or trapped into early marriage. Culturally, there is a belief that falling pregnant out of marriage is a symbol of loose morals or bad upbringing.  

Police failing to catch up

Because of poverty, some of these girls are forced to submit to the demands of their abusers and in some cases, the police are letting them down by not treating some of the incidents with the seriousness and urgency they deserve.

According to the country’s constitution, the age of consent is 16, but girls as young as ten are giving birth.

Despite the statutory rape offence, Mbali says Muchuzi went on to threaten her with “revenge porn,” saying that if she goes to the police, he “would circulate the video he took while they were having sex.”

“Although there are isolated cases where victims complain that the police did not help them, I can assure you that child and women abuse is a major concern and a priority for the police,” said police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo.

Human rights advocacy group the Legal Resource Centre (LRC) says in a country where child abuse is so rampant, police and the judiciary “need not let the girls down.”

“South Africa needs to address teenage pregnancies which are rising at an alarming rate. The police may argue that they are doing their best in dealing with this, but we need a collective effort at national level to see if the men responsible for these statutory rapes are actually being prosecuted. Do the figures of victims tally with figures of convicts of statutory rape? If not, who is sleeping on duty, the police or judiciary?”

Shaatirah Hassim, Legal Resource Centre

Schools are a form of protection, hence with more girls at home during lockdown, they were vulnerable to falling victims of male relatives or neighbors, compromising and complicating the chances of abuses being reported to police.

“Some cases just go unreported for various reasons: sometimes families or society prevent victims from reporting when the perpetrators are close relatives, sometimes it’s fear of the unknown or threats by the perpetrators,” argues Brigadier Naidoo. “Sometimes they choose to settle the issues on their own or force the girls into early marriages. This makes it difficult for the police to do their work.”

A lost generation?

Florence Siziba, the School Head at Lonhaba High School in the West Rand, says an integrated and holistic approach is needed to support girls so that they stay in school and achieve their full potential during and after pregnancy.

“Bit by bit we are losing a generation to school dropouts related to Covid-19.” said Siziba. “At my school, currently four girls did not return to school due to pregnancy. Two of them are 14-years-old, one is thirteen and Letwin* is 16.”

“Letwin was supposed to be taking her final matric examinations but she ran away from home due to the abuse she faced in the hands of her parents when they discovered she was pregnant,” explained Siziba. “We tried to hunt her down to sit for her exams but to no avail. She was one of the brightest students.”

In a country where about a third of young people aged 15 to 24 are both unemployed and not currently being educated or trained for future employment, to underestimate the drastic effect dropout has on the future of young people is both short-sighted and devastating.

“We are hopeful that the figures will drop since the Minister of Basic Education has intensified the implementation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in schools,” added Siziba. But sex education can only go part of the way in addressing the unequal standards faced by students who become pregnant.

"The scar is only seen on me"

Unbias the News tracked down Letwin, who gave birth on October 27 2021 and found her at her auntie’s place.

“I am supposed to be taking my final exams but I have a newborn child. What pains me the most is that the guy who impregnated me is also a student and he is in class, taking his exams. The scar is only seen on me because it is a woman who gets pregnant. "

“I tried to go back to school after lockdown but it was not easy,” Letwin continues. “The teachers and fellow students stigimatized me. Sometimes I would sleep in class only to wake up to laughter and mockery statements so I decided to stop because it was draining me.”

“I faced bullying at school and lack of compassion at home,” Letwin added. “My daddy would wake me up even at midnight saying go to the man who impregnated you. That’s when I decided to run away and came to stay with my auntie here,” said Letwin.

According to the Education Member of the Executive Council for Gauteng Province Panyaza Lesufu, “of the thousands of girls who fall pregnant, only a third are likely to return to school after giving birth.”

“I would want to go back to school after giving birth. My auntie has spoken to people from UNICEF and they linked me up with social workers who said they can take my child to a safe place as I go back to school and will reunite us when I am done with school and ready to take the baby, ” added Letwin.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Deputy representative for UNICEF in South Africa Muriel Mafico says that the teen pregnancy scourge in the country “requires a multi-sectoral engagement. Families, communities, schools and government have to work together. Mental health and psycho-social support is needed for the girls/victims.”

At the national level the Ministry of Education has embarked on a massive drive to help keep the pregnant girls in schools.

Acting director general in the department Granville Whittle says they deployed 3,000 young people known as “learner support agents” to schools mandated with supporting young girls who fall pregnant.

“This includes taking schoolwork to their homes if they missed school or are at home sick and also help them to access social welfare services such as child support grants when the babies are born.” Whittle explained. “They also provide emotional support for vulnerable pupils and those from granny-headed households with homework.”

Whittle added that the ministry also “signed an agreement with the United States government for additional funding aimed and hiring more learner support agents.”

“Programmes are also in place to educate girls on the voluntarily giving up of their children for adoption. It is also important to note that those who dropped out still have the opportunity to re-enter the system in 2022,” Whittle added.

A right to remain in school

The future of many girls impregnated and forced to drop out of school has been compromised, but where are the fathers if they are neither in prison nor in the lives of the mother and child?

“For the years that I have worked in communities around South Africa, I realized that the father always plays a shadowy role in the whole teen pregnancy journey but I want the nation to know that there are laws that can make these men take care of their children,” said Monsi Madosi, a social worker with the department of Social Welfare.

The urgent need to address the matter pushed the cabinet to approve the Teenage Pregnancy Policy in mid-November. The policy grants a right for pregnant students to continue with their education as do male students who impregnate them. It also contains a reporting requirement for children who fall pregnant as a result of statutory rape. 

The policy goes into effect this month.

South Africa joins five other countries from Sub-Saharan Africa, namely Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Uganda, Sierra Leone and São Tomé and Príncipe, which have countermanded discriminatory policies and adopted policies that allow pregnant students to stay in school. 

 

The teenage pregnancy crises in South Africa has brought into question the country’s social and criminal justice polices as well as their sincerity to efficiently deal with child abuse cases. For those like Mbali and Letwin, their future depends on whether society continues to see them as students as they become parents. 

*Names have been changed.

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