In the past five years, the number of 10-14 year olds giving birth in South Africa has increased by 50%. The cause: a surge of statutory rape cases, which often go unreported.

report published in the South African Medical Journal earlier this month analysed data available in the public sector database from 2017 to 2021. In this period, the number of births for young teenagers aged 10-14 increased by almost 50% to 4089. In adolescent girls aged 15-19, the number of births increased by 18% to 134 893. Generally, rates were higher in the more rural provinces such as Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape.

The study called pregnancy in very young adolescent girls ‘a savage indictment of society’. “Each of these pregnancies is evidence of statutory rape. In a country where gender-based violence is given such a high political profile, these pregnancies should result in prosecution. But is for the most part, they are ignored, which highlights how much effort is going to be required to remedy the problem,” the authors said.

Most cases go under the radar

Nelisiwe Hlophe of the Soul City Institute told Health-e News that most cases of statutory rape are often not acknowledged.

“When 10-14 year olds give birth, it’s a case of sexual abuse. It’s clear from the SAPS (South African Police Services) reports that such cases are not reported,” said Hlophe.

The law states that no child under the age of 12 years can consent to sex. Any sexual act with a child under the age of 12 years is statutory rape or sexual assault.

If children aged 12-16 engage in sexual acts together they will not be criminally charged; and it is not criminal for a child older than 12 years to have sex with a partner who is less than two years older than they are. 

Hlophe said that cultural practices and beliefs like ukuthwala and child marriages also contribute to the problem where girls as young as 15 are married to older men.

“The key driving force is poverty and socio – economic inequalities in our communities. Most young girls are having relationships with older men who support them financially. As a result, they don’t have the power to negotiate condom use or even to use contraceptives”, she explained.

Another contributing factor, said Hlophe, is the difficulty teenagers face in trying to access sexual reproductive health services. In rural areas, distance and transport is an issue, while judgemental attitudes by healthcare workers is a problem everywhere.

Hlophe said that although the National Department of Health has rolled out adolescent and youth friendly services, gaps remain, with some staff still being judgmental to a young girl requesting contraceptives.

The impact of Covid-19

According to the report, the increases during the past two years were particularly large and ‘may be due to disruption of health and school services with decreased access to these as a result of COVID-19. A lack of access and shortages of contraceptives in most public health facilities also didn’t help.

“There have been problems with access to contraceptives in the public sector in the past five years. Injectable contraceptives, for the example, were out of stock for several months during 2015-2019. And then during COVID-19, access to facilities and health workers has sometimes been difficult because of lockdowns and diversions of health workers,” the report stated.

The pandemic also ‘negatively affected the provision and access of termination of pregnancy services’, which would have impacted the number of births. – Health-e News