"I'm five months pregnant by a young man who works in the barracks," says 16-year-old Elsa. "He is a soldier and helps me buy food and other things for school, because my family could not afford to send me to school otherwise." Elsa is one of many girls in Africa who have found themselves in this similar situation during the coronavirus pandemic: Young girls in particular are increasingly dealing with early and unwanted pregnancies, which is further exacerbating poverty and inequality.
Elsa lives in Mozambique's southern province of Inhambane and is in the eighth grade at Massinga Secondary School. Her teacher, Hermenegilda Gafur, confirms that many young girls at the school are now expecting a child. "There can be two or three pregnant women in one class alone," Hermenegilda told DW .
This was also the situation for 16-year-old Mirela, who was hoping to escape the same economic hardship her parents' experienced. "I got pregnant by 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 COVID lockdowns
There are signs that teenage pregnancies are on the rise in several African countries — due to lockdowns imposed during the pandemic. International aid organizations say there is cause for concern and are warning of the long-term consequences early pregnancies have on young girls. According to UNICEF, difficulties during pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death among young women between 15 and 19.
Many vital drop-in centers for adolescents and adults who require urgent help, as well as schools, have also been forced to close due to the pandemic. According to Amref Health Africa, a Kenya-based nongovernmental organization, girls are much more vulnerable to sexual abuse without such safety structures, which help to educate them about sexual and reproductive health. Amref says this trend is now likely prevalant across the continent.
Poverty a factor in early pregnancies
In neighboring Uganda, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) cites growing poverty as one reason for rising teen pregnancy rates. "Those who are poor tend to marry their girls off, much like a business deal," UNFPA representative Edson Muhwezi told DW . "The parents receive a dowry, often cattle." COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation, he adds.
According to the Ugandan government, prior to the pandemic the teen pregnancy rate was one in four teenagers. Now, it's nearly one in three girls in every village.
Pandemic pushing up teen pregnancy
Viola Ekikyo is among 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 told DW .
Meanwhile in South Africa, the number of children born to teenage mothers in the most populous province, Gauteng, has increased by 60 per cent since the COVID-19 pandemic began. One reason for the high rate of teenage pregnancy is that girls have very limited access to contraceptives or the option of safe abortion, according to the latest report from nongovernmental group Save the Children, which has raised concerns about the welfare of mothers and babies in pandemic times.
Figures from the Gauteng health department indicate that between April 2020 and March 2021, more than 23,000 teens under the age of 18 gave birth — including 934 girls under the age of 14.
The cycle of child poverty continues
Marumo Sekgobela, a health and nutrition manager at Save the Children South Africa, stresses that the global pandemic risks creating setbacks in the hard-won progress of girls — especially in the field of education. "We encourage them to attend primary health care clinics in their communities," he told DW . Screenings, consultations with social workers, and open conversations with parents are also crucial, Sekgobela says.
He warns that this wave of early pregnancies will have consequences for those affected. "Young mothers' education 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 involved: Early pregnancies could lead to complications, such as high blood pressure during pregnancy or high blood sugar levels. Childbirth also poses risks, particularly for young mothers, as well as their babies.
Broadening the discussion
The high rates of teenage pregnancy has also set back South Africa's fight against HIV/AIDS. According to Sekgobela, infection rates are quite high among pregnant women. Then, there is another serious factor to consider: Sexual violence.
"We need comprehensive sex education, which should be offered to young people at appropriate ages in and out of school," Sekgobela says. He suggests policymakers and civil organizations implement this to a greater extent, and include traditional chiefs and religious leaders in discussions. In principle, most young people — especially those in the cities — are aware of the risks and impacts of early pregnancy, Sekgobela says. "But in rural areas or informal settlements, education and development are just not the same."