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How can Africa respond to rising teenage pregnancy?

Teenage pregnancy and maternal deaths see substantial rises across Africa as a result of Covid-19. Is this now the second societal pandemic?

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), pregnancies among adolescent girls remain a global problem.

An estimated 21 million girls aged 15–19 years in developing countries become pregnant and about 12 million of them give birth every year. African healthcare systems – including the provision of sexual and reproductive health information and services – have been severely disrupted due to the pandemic since 2020.

The consequences of this change will be felt at all levels whether local or global, including families, communities, and countries.

Various countries have reported an increase in fertility rates and maternal deaths especially among adolescents, based on preliminary data from health facilities.

This is as a result of low use of services such as family planning and adolescent sexual and reproductive health, for fear of contracting Covid-19 in health facilities.


Pandemic pushing up teen pregnancy in most countries

Young girls are increasingly dealing with early and unwanted pregnancies, which is further exacerbating poverty and inequality across Africa.

Zambia, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, just to mention a few, have all reported an increase in teen pregnancies.

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. The UNFPA cites growing poverty as one reason for rising pregnancy rates.

In Zimbabwe, the government says nearly 5,000 teenage girls became pregnant in January and February and about 1,800 entered early marriages during the same period.

Similarly, in early September, South Africa’s Medical Research Council, conducted a research and issued that even before the pandemic, 16% of young women aged 15-19 had begun childbearing.

The figure ranges between 11% in urban areas and 19% in rural areas. One factor that has contributed to this is violence against women and girls. In South Africa, one in three women experience gender-based violence and one in five children under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse.

Deficiencies in the health system also contribute to teenage pregnancies. It’s not always easy for adolescents to get contraceptives if services aren’t youth friendly. Education about contraception for adolescents is inadequate too. It is estimated that 31% of girls aged 15 to 19 aren’t getting the contraceptives they need – a bigger proportion than other age groups.


Girls in between marriage and school

In many African countries, mostly in remote communities, pregnant teens choose marriage over schooling.

Countries like Tanzania, Togo, and Equatorial Guinea outright expel pregnant girls and young mothers. This disrupts the mental health of these young teenagers who in turn opt for early marriages as requested by their parents to cover up societal shame.

Many more countries, including Kenya and Ghana, have re-entry policies that facilitate the return of pregnant girls and young mothers to primary and secondary school.

Nevertheless, practice often differs from policy, and sometimes requires girls to take a one or two year break before re-enrolling or passing specific exams.

Sierra Leone lifted its ban on pregnant schoolgirls in March 2020 and has promoted it as a measure that will help ensure girls’ education after the Covid-19 crisis. Countries across sub-Saharan Africa must learn from these lessons and prepare for the imminent increase in pregnant students by establishing policies or guidelines to facilitate their continued education and return.


Reversing impacts of Covid-19 in Africa

To maintain the economic, health, and wellbeing gains of improved sexual and reproductive health in Africa, it is essential that governments prioritize the reproductive health and rights of all people, including through access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.

Most nongovernmental organizations have been advocating for girls’ rights and equality more than governments.

Remote communities get awareness and education about reproductive health services through these organizations. In Togo, a 20-year-old Hayathe Ayeva is the President of the Youth Action Movement and champions the sexual rights of young people – especially adolescent girls.

Through her social activism, she has been able to reach many girls amid the Covid-19 pandemic and educate them on reproductive health.

Governments need to prioritise and fully fund sexual and reproductive health services as part of their Covid-19 response plans, recognising their essential and life-saving nature.

Additionally, embracing new ways of providing information and services, including through social media, radio, and distance learning could mitigate the impact of any disruption in supply chains for contraceptives.

It is equally important that governments address major gaps in data on the impact of Covid-19 on fertility. To understand demographic shifts, countries need timely and accurate information about births and deaths.

 

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