Just over one in 10 South African girls fall pregnant while still in their teens. The vast majority of these pregnancies are unplanned and can have serious consequences for the girls' health, as well as their life chances. Most affected are black girls from poor families.
A 2010 survey showed that almost a third of girls who dropped out of school did so because they were pregnant. Death rates during childbirth are among the highest in the world. Teens comprise 17% of females who die in childbirth, despite the fact that they make up only 11% of the total number of women giving birth.
According to Professor Priscilla Reddy of the Human Research Sciences Council, most of these deaths are preventable. Speaking at a Mmoho media workshop (www.mmoho.co.za), a national advocacy campaign which aims to reduce the number of unplanned teenage pregnancies, Prof Reddy said the main causes of death were high blood pressure during pregnancy; TB and HIV; and haemorrhaging during labour.
With timely medical intervention, these conditions are largely treatable. However, stigma, shame and unsympathetic health workers mean pregnant teenagers are often reluctant to seek help.
Prof Reddy announced a pilot study into a phone app aimed specifically at pregnant teens. It will link to the Department of Health's mobile platform, MomConnect, to send SMSs on pregnancy health care and clinic appointments. Messaging will be tailored to speak to teens. A concomitant study will look into the training of health care workers to encourage more sympathetic treatment.
Mmoho aims to reduce the occurrence of unplanned teen pregnancies. The campaign does this by advocating for a positive and rights-based discourse around teenage pregnancy as well advocating for comprehensive and accessible sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) services.
Additionally, young mothers are being engaged to drive the Mmoho campaign to ensure that it closely reflects the needs of those most affected. One of these is Welma Mukuba.
She discovered at the start of her matric year that she was pregnant. "I was 17," she said. "I knew nothing about contraception."
Welma grew up with her sister, her grandmother and her mother, who supports the family on a domestic worker's wage, in Chaiwelo, Soweto.
She told no one about her pregnancy and kept a shawl wrapped tightly around her growing belly to hide it. "I was afraid they would be angry," she said.
At eight months, she experienced severe pains. "I told my mom I had period pains." When the pain persisted, her mother took her to Baragwaneth Hospital where a scan revealed the truth. "My mom was hurt and angry. She wanted me to finish school, go to university and get a nice job." At school, she was one of two pregnant girls in her class of 45.
"My economics teacher said nasty things. She said: 'some people go out there and get pregnant for grant money. They should know that that money comes out of my tax'. The kids pick up on that and it circulates. At break, all 500 kids know. It gives you low self-esteem."
Welma's baby, Lungile, was born on August 21, 2012. Welma's pelvis was too small for her to give birth naturally and she had a caesarean section. She still managed to write her exams and get her matric. "I won't let having a baby at a young age bring me down."
Mmoho calls on all stakeholders to support teens with information and services to prevent unplanned pregnancies for those who are not young parents yet, and to support teen parents to remain in school and plan their bright futures.