Over 3000 girls aged 14 and under became mothers this past year. Girls are being sexualised and abused at a very young age. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya invites a more mature understanding of Mary’s own predicament as a young, unmarried and pregnant woman that should help us to rethink our support of young women that are being forced to rebuild their lives, many after a significant trauma that leaves them without a choice.
Numbers released by Statistics South Africa last week (30 August 2018) show that more than 3 000 girls aged between 10 and 14 became mothers or registered the births of their children in South Africa last year. Over 100 000 teenagers became moms in the same year.
The Recorded Live Births report commissioned by the state's official statistician, Statistics South Africa, showed that a total of 3 261 girl children aged between 10 and 14 became registered mothers in South Africa last year. Of the 3 261, 1 959 registered the births late which means the babies were born earlier.
The same report showed that 119 645 young women aged 15-19, registered births in 2017. Of the 119 645 births, more than 97 000 births were from 2017, while 22 000 were registered late meaning that these children were not born earlier than 2017.
Equally concerning is that more than 6 out of every 10 babies born in that period have not registered paternity details. This means that the father was for whatever reason, unacknowledged or, worse, unknown.
For many Catholics, especially in more traditional societies, early or teenage motherhood is still met with hostility, judgment and is not always met with the family's compassion and support. Teenage pregnancy is often stigmatised and the pregnant girl is shamed, blamed and disgraced by her family and in her community.
Under these circumstances, it should not come as a surprise if young mothers either leave the Church forever or secretly terminate their pregnancies forced to live with the weight of their actions.
This is predictable for a Church that places so much weight on chastity and who teaches that its most venerated figure, Mary, is/was a perpetual virgin.
With this, one could easily forget that the Blessed Virgin, was herself an unmarried pregnant teenager. Admittedly, her circumstances were more than a little special.
The point, however, is the fact that there was a regime which managed the consequences of unmarried mothers before, during and well after Mary’s time. The consequence was extreme as we know from reports of stoning the pregnant girl child or her father to death which also proves that the scenario was not one that was entirely unheard of.
Independent Media Group’s online platform, IOL quoted Divya Naidoo, the Child Protection Programme manager at Save The Child, who blames the rise in abnormally young pregnancies on the abuse and early sexualisation of children.
“What we are finding is that children have become a lot more sexualised and start engaging in sex at an earlier age. The other difficulty is that not enough work is being done in understanding their behaviour,” she said.
Naidoo explained that in rural areas, children were starved of entertainment and were instead engaging in sexual entertainment. She said that heightened exposure to television programmes and other media has led to children engaging in sex earlier wanting to mimic what they see, much of which is shown in technicolour detail.
“Children are also abused and they fall pregnant. Now in some of these cases, if the disclosure of the pregnancy is not early enough before 20 weeks, they have to go through with the full term pregnancy,” she said.
The Stats SA numbers and Save The Child remarks, ask pertinent questions of the church community. What support-systems are there for young women who, for whatever reason, find themselves pregnant and unmarried, scared and overwhelmed?
We have a problem in our society and it is not just a moral, religious or catechetical issue. It is all these, of course, but there is much more needed if we are to address the various nuances of the challenge that that many of our children are prematurely forced into.
Though it affects all classes, it is the most marginalised girls and young women who feel the worst impact of being mothers earlier than they would have envisaged or wished.
As often happens in patriarchal societies, men are allowed to escape the consequences of their actions while women carry the burden – as was the case when Christ intervened in the stoning of the woman caught in adultery.
What measures are in place in parishes and even in schools to mitigate against the seemingly intense and unnecessary programme of sexualising children at such an early age? Connected to that, how are we preparing young men and challenging older men to act ethically towards young women, and women in general, and take responsibility for their actions?
In tandem with this, we must redefine the support (socio-psychological and economic) that young mothers get because, unlike their partners, they do not have the option of choosing whether or not to acknowledge the birth of their child.
The harsh reality for the Church, in a country that allows for legal termination of pregnancy, is that termination will always be a viable option for those who feel that they have been left to their own devices or to fend for themselves.
Showing love and compassion for young women in an already stressed situation could go further than any homily in helping young pregnant women to really choose life. We have to provide the support mechanisms that will empower them to be pro-life.