COVID-19: Containment Impacts Teenage Pregnancy Rates in Africa
“I am five months pregnant by a young man who works in the barracks,” said Elsa, 16. “He is a soldier and he helps me buy food and other things for school, because my family would not be able to afford to send me to school otherwise. Elsa is one of the many girls in Africa who found themselves in this similar situation during the coronavirus pandemic: young girls in particular are increasingly faced with early and unwanted pregnancies, further aggravating poverty and inequalities.
Elsa lives in the southern province of Inhambane in Mozambique and is in eighth grade at Massinga Secondary School. Her teacher, Hermenegilda Gafur, confirms that many young girls in the school are now expecting a child. “There can be two or three pregnant women in a single class,” Hermenegilda said. DW.
This was also the case for Mirela, 16, who hoped to escape the same economic difficulties as her parents. “I got pregnant from a man who worked at the hospital and he said he would marry me,” she says. Unfortunately, the promise fell through and she is currently living with her parents.
The impact of lockdowns linked to COVID
There are signs that teenage pregnancies are on the rise in several African countries – due to lockdowns imposed during the pandemic. International humanitarian organizations say there is cause for concern and warn of the long-term consequences of teenage pregnancies on young girls. According to UNICEF, difficulties during pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death among young women between the ages of 15 and 19.
Many essential drop-in centers for adolescents and adults in urgent need of help, as well as schools, have also been forced to close due to the pandemic. According to Amref Health Africa, a Kenya-based non-governmental organization, girls are much more vulnerable to sexual abuse without such safety structures, which help educate them about sexual and reproductive health. Amref says this trend is now likely spread across the continent.
Poverty a factor in teenage pregnancies
In neighboring Uganda, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) cites growing poverty as one of the reasons for rising rates of teenage pregnancy. “Those who are poor tend to marry their daughters, much like a trade deal,” said UNFPA representative Edson Muhwezi. DW. “Parents receive a dowry, often cattle.” COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation, he adds.
According to the Ugandan government, before the pandemic, the teenage pregnancy rate was one in four teenage girls. Today, it is nearly one in three girls in each village.
Pandemic pushing teenage pregnancy
Viola Ekikyo is one of them; she had her child at 17. “I was scared and ran away from home,” she says. She later returned and now helps her mother in a small restaurant. “She wouldn’t have gotten pregnant if the schools hadn’t been closed,” her mother said DW.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the number of children born to teenage mothers in the most populous province, Gauteng, has increased by 60% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the reasons for the high rate of teenage pregnancy is that girls have very limited access to contraceptives or the possibility of a safe abortion, according to the latest report by the nongovernmental group Save the Children, which raised concerns about the well-being of mothers and babies in the event of a pandemic. times.
Figures from the Gauteng Department of Health show that between April 2020 and March 2021, more than 23,000 adolescent girls under the age of 18 gave birth, including 934 girls under the age of 14.
The cycle of child poverty continues
Marumo Sekgobela, head of health and nutrition at Save the Children South Africa, points out that the global pandemic threatens to set back the hard-won progress of girls, especially in education. “We encourage them to attend primary health care clinics in their communities,” he said. DW. Screenings, consultations with social workers and open conversations with parents are also crucial, says Sekgobela.
He warns that this wave of teenage pregnancies will have consequences for the people concerned. “The education of young mothers will be affected, and most are likely to drop out of school,” he says. “This perpetuates a cycle of child poverty that many young girls in South Africa are already experiencing.” There are also health risks: early pregnancy can lead to complications, such as high blood pressure during pregnancy or high blood sugar. Childbirth also carries risks, especially for young mothers, as well as for their babies.
Broaden the debate
High rates of teenage pregnancy have also set back South Africa’s fight against HIV / AIDS. According to Sekgobela, infection rates are quite high in pregnant women. Then there is another serious factor to consider: sexual violence.
“We need comprehensive sexuality education, which should be available to young people at appropriate ages, inside and outside of school,” says Sekgobela. He suggests that policymakers and civil organizations apply this to a greater extent and include traditional and religious leaders in discussions. In principle, most young people – especially those in cities – are aware of the risks and impacts of early pregnancy, says Sekgobela. “But in rural areas or informal settlements, education and development just aren’t the same.”