In a country already beset by rampant crime and violence, high unemployment, racial turbulence and widespread transmission of the HIV virus, South Africa must also contend with yet another social crisis: the soaring numbers of teenage girls who become pregnant.
BBC reported that some 182,000 female high school students -- mostly poor and black -- become pregnant every year in South Africa, thereby endangering their educations and futures, while placing heavy financial burdens on their beleaguered families. Many of the new mothers are as young as 14.
The Human Sciences Research Council of the World Bank estimated that 18 percent of all students in South Africa either get pregnant or make someone pregnant each year.
Maternity at a young age also leads to serious health complications, even death -- more than one–third (36 percent) of all maternal deaths recorded in the country comprise teenage mothers, while accounting for only about 8 percent of all births.
"Their pelvises are not yet developed and in many case they struggle to deliver naturally because their pelvises are still small," Dr. Jay-Anne Devjee, head of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward at King Dinuzulu hospital in Durban told BBC.
"We are often forced to deliver the babies via Caesarean section, which increases the risks of hemorrhaging and puts their lives at risk."
Phumla Tshabalala, only 16, is one South African girl who just gave birth.
"I haven't seen my boyfriend for a long time and he hasn't even been here to see me and the baby," she said.
"I told him that I've given birth but no-one from his family has come. I'm not even sure if he told his parents about the baby."
Tshabalala also said that her parents are “disappointed” in her.
They worked hard to educate me and they say I've thrown all of their hard work away. I hope that they can forgive me one day," she lamented.
Despite a recent ruling by a Constitutional Court that schools cannot expel pregnant students (reasserting a law passed in 1996), many teen moms nonetheless are compelled to quit their studies in order to take care of their infants. Those who remain in school often hide their conditions (and big bellies) by wearing extra-large clothing, among other forms of subterfuge. South African laws also seek to protect the identity of pregnant students – but it is nearly impossible to keep their medical condition a secret for long, often putting teachers in delicate positions.
"Teachers are confronted with situations where [students] are stigmatized by other students, where the pregnant pupil becomes emotionally ostracized and your call of duty now extends to that of being a nurse, a social worker,” says Mugwena Maluleke, spokesperson for the South African Democratic Teachers Union. “It places pressure on teachers, not to mention the workload."
Dr. Edward Senzo Mchunu, the education chief for KwaZulu-Natal, warns that the high rate of pregnancy in his province is threatening to take on monstrous proportions and we cannot sit back and do nothing. We are doing everything we can to encourage our young people to be responsible.”
In addition, sexual activity by teens raises the risk of HIV infection in light of apparent widespread promiscuity and the practice of unprotected sexual intercourse.
Already, KwaZulu Natal province has 3 million people who are HIV-positive (out of a total population of about 10.5 million).
Complicating matters, under South African laws, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 16 to have sex, even if it is consensual. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) have prosecuted teenagers – including pregnant individuals – under the law, leading to further secrecy and denials by young people of their sexual activity.
“This problem [teen pregnancy] seems to be continuing unabated as we continue to receive similar cases.” NPA spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said, according to Voice of America.
Teen pregnancies have also become a serious problem in the neighboring Eastern Cape province.
Voice of America reported on a poor district in the province called Zidindi -- with a population of about 130,000 and nearly 100 percent unemployment -- which has witnessed a dramatic increase in teenagers giving births. Zidindi also suffers from high rate diseases caused by lack of open sewers as well as a very high rate if HIV infection. Hundreds of children in the district die every year from diarrhea and other illnesses.
“More than 65 percent of the mothers we deal with in Zidindi are teenagers between 13 and 19 years old. It is common to see 15 year old girls who already have three kids,” said a local NGO health worker named Ncedisa Paul. “But it always shocks me.”
Paul spoke of one local family where the whole family, a mother and three teenage daughters are all pregnant.
“The whole family! The mother is giving birth, the daughters also. Two of those daughters are HIV positive. They each have had three kids of their own,” she said.
But Paul noted that these desperately impoverished women have a strong incentive to get pregnant -- the South African government hands out monthly support grants of about US$40 per child younger than 18 to poor families.
“I could have told them, ‘Please stop having babies.’ But those babies are going to provide these women with their only income for about the next 20 years. Am I going to provide them with that money every month? No. All I have for them are words and they cannot eat words. So I just kept quiet.”
Paul suspects that some of the local pregnancies were triggered by the lure of government welfare payments.
“In one family (I know) this woman [is] having eight children,” she said. “The other one is … pregnant now [with] the tenth one. Then the other one is pregnant [with] the ninth one. That’s the way it is here.”
But the government has denied that its policy has led to unwanted pregnancies. A study in 2006 by the country’s Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) determined that since the child support grant was enacted in 1998, only 20 percent of teen mothers received the payment, since most could not produce identity documents to quality for the money.
In Zidindi, where recreation opportunities for youths are virtually nonexistent, many bored young women are seduced and exploited by older local men, particularly those who ply them with cheap alcohol purchased a local “shebeens” (bars) – despite the law which declared no one under 18 can drink alcohol.
“[The girls] end up entertaining themselves by drinking in the shebeens and [they] mess around with boys. You can see them sitting around on these high heels with boys,” said Paul.
“Some of the huts are converted into taverns in these areas. So you’ll find [the girls] there, the whole night, sitting, drinking and dancing. On Fridays, they are not sleeping, leaving their small ones [babies] behind with the grannies.”
In addition, many young women, even those under the legal marriage age of 16, wed much older men -- typically those who work in mines hundreds of miles way and send them money.
“The government knows [such marriages are] illegal but no officials ever come here to check things out and the girls carry on getting married,” Paul complained. “The mothers take their young daughters to marry 30- and 40- and even 50-year-old men, for money, because everyone’s so poor here. It’s poverty that’s driving all of this.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.