It’s during school hours as I drive through the dusty streets of Majakaneng in Brits, outside Pretoria, yet I see many children of school going age roaming the streets or sitting in the corners selling sweets and vegetables. As I drive towards the Michael Modisakeng Secondary School, I drive along a gravel road for about 1.5 kilometres and I pass several houses with unemployed people sitting under a tree. Further down the road two houses have huge boards advertising that they sell alcohol. As I enter the school’s premises, I am greeted by shouts and screams of boys playing soccer on the sand. There are a total of 1245 learners at this school, each coming from different and even complicated backgrounds. Single parent and child-headed homes are very common.
The Deputy Principal, Titus Mogomotsi, says poverty is high, making young girls at his school vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and risk-taking behaviour. He says his current challenge is the high number of girls falling pregnant. He says this is not only a problem in his school, but in the village at large.
‘About 40% of our girl learners have kids. The policy of our school is that once a learner falls pregnant we do not send them away. She stays with us, but as soon as she gives birth, then she goes home and will only be admitted the following year. In 2008 we had 49 learners pregnant in the same academic year. But it reduced last year to 28. So far, this year I haven’t checked my stats, but I know that those who have already left us to give birth are above 20’.
Mogomotsi says the reasons for the high pregnancy rate are poverty and a false belief that the government’s child support grant of R220 will be sufficient to cater for their child once born.
‘Poverty and the socio ‘ economic background of this village is very bad, the second reason is the incentive they get from the government because we hear them boasting that at the end of the month they will get this and that amount’, says Mogomotsi.
It’s clear that young people in this village are having unprotected sex. As we commemorate World AIDS Day, you may wonder whether these teens think about the risk of contracting HIV. Marie Stopes South Africa is a private clinic known for providing abortion services.
The clinic says the festive season is a challenging time because they see an influx of teenage girls coming in for abortions from the end of December to end of January. Sister Brenda Bamuza is the Clinical Co-ordinator at one of the Johannesburg branches of Marie Stopes South Africa. She says girls as young as 12 visit the clinic for abortion. Bamuza says prior to performing the abortion they offer the girls an HIV test, but many don’t opt for it.
‘Marie Stopes offers free HIV testing for every client who comes in for an abortion and we encourage all of our clients to do that test because they are already at high risk. It’s free but most don’t want to do it ‘ they want to deal with the stress of their pregnancy, but not of their status’.
She says, often, the girls will vouch never to have unprotected sex again, yet, Bamuza says their records show that one girl may come back three or even four times to have an abortion.
‘We have girls who come back and come back again to the same clinic or other clinics. Sometimes we can tell if it is not the first time she is coming because she will ask you: ‘Last time this was not done’¦ why are you doing it now?’ Or the client will say: ‘Please don’t explain anything to me. I was here. Just give me something to write’, proclaims Bamuza.
Lovelife is a non-profit organisation that tackles the issue of HIV targeting teenagers from 12 to 19 years. Communications Manager, Esther Etkin, explains why it’s important to target this age group of boys and girls.
‘Teen girls who are falling pregnant are concentrated between 17 and 19 years. We want to reach young people before they are a statistic. The same goes for HIV. We know that 97% of 15 year olds are HIV-negative, so we need to reach them at that age before they get infected. Young women, biologically, are more prone to infections; hence we need to make sure they have all the tools to tackle challenges that put them at risk’.
Etkin says Lovelife seeks to equip young people to take charge of their lives.
‘It is one thing telling young people to use condoms, but if there are still clinics where nurses don’t want to give them the condoms, there won’t be a change. If you tell young people to use condoms you have to encourage gender equality? So, we give them the tools to face daily challenges so that they actually take the info that they know and implement it and be motivated’, says Etkin.