Zille: Stigmatizing pregnant girls is not the solution

Helen Zille’s suggestion that men who have unprotected sex with younger girls should be charged with culpable homicide was rightfully condemned as nonsensical, populist and just bad public health.

Zille’s recent comments about teenage pregnancy generated less controversy but, in our opinion, were just as problematic. As part of her and her party’s experiments with “health economics” in which politicians attempt to prompt public health changes by providing financial incentives for socially desirable behavior, Zille and the DA awarded cash prizes of R10,000 each to girls who had finished school and not gotten pregnant.

Her remarks at the responsibility awards were deeply problematic: they stigmatized girls and women who have had children during their school going years, ignored the social factors shaping the reproductive health choices and intentions of many young women, and they completely neglected to mention the roles and responsibilities of the girls’ male sexual partners.

Zille described the girls who won the responsibility awards as: “young people who live responsibly, have pursued excellence in their education and who have avoided the social ills plaguing their communities. They have demonstrated that no matter what your circumstances are, you can rise above them and can pursue your dream”.

Her comments conveniently ignore the systemic nature of the drivers of the context that often lead to women and girls falling pregnant.

If Zille’s programme is to actually empower girls and promote increased rates of high school graduation it will need to move beyond superficial celebrations of personal choice and personal responsibility and instead look at some of the social forces shaping the life choices of many girls and young women.

If Zille is truly invested in women’s empowerment and improved school completion amongst girls, she would do better to ensure that all schools have comprehensive sexuality education, that termination of pregnancy is available to those who need it without stigma and condemnation, and that real efforts are made to transform the gender norms that equate manhood with dominance over women, with multiple sexual partners, and with drinking large amounts of alcohol.

However, instead of commenting on the complex social forces contributing to teenage pregnancy Zille simply moralises and stigmatizes. She says: “More often than not, government programmes reward those who behave irresponsibly”. She doesn’t attempt to justify or explain this statement—although most people would recognise this as a veiled reference to her dissatisfaction about the National Government’s very successful roll-out of anti-retroviral treatment to nearly 1.5 million people living with HIV and AIDS. 
Despite her suggestion that teenage pregnancy is a matter of personal responsibility, the reality is that not nearly enough is done to prevent teenage pregnancy. Years of research show that comprehensive sexuality education is the most effective way of reducing teenage pregnancy and preventing the transmission of HIV or sexually transmitted infections. Yet, few schools provide any meaningful sex education and the Western Cape Department of Health has done very little to address this.

For those girls who do fall pregnant but do not wish to carry to term, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find termination of pregnancy services. Adolescent friendly clinics are few and far between and little has been done since the passage of the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 to challenge the pervasive stigma that lingers from our Calvinist Apartheid past. Rather than moralizing about personal responsibility, perhaps Premier Zille should make sure that young women are able to access their constitutional right to termination of pregnancy services.

Then, with regards to gender inequality, study after study shows that many women and girls are still unable to negotiate the terms and conditions of sex. Far too many women are still afraid to say no or to insist that their partner uses a condom—with predictable consequences for teenage pregnancy and HIV infection. Many girls are pressured or persuaded to have unprotected sex with older men who offer them gifts of clothes, cell-phones or school-fees. Astonishingly, Zille completely fails to even mention these gender related pressures and social norms in her comments about teenage pregnancy.

Changing men’s harmful attitudes does not require the threat of being charged with culpable homicide. Although you wouldn’t know it from Zille’s pronouncement on the matter, there is, in fact, lots of evidence that it is actually relatively easy to transform men’s gender related norms and practices, including those that contribute to teenage pregnancy. Well implemented programmes like Stepping Stones or Sonke’s One Man Can Campaign can bring about dramatic changes in men’s attitudes and practices related to gender and sex, including condom use.

A R10,000 responsibility prize might generate media attention. However, to improve the lives of the vast majority of girls and women who don’t luck out and win a quick cash prize, Premier Zille will have to do lots more. Comprehensive sexuality education, including on HIV and gender norms, must be integrated into the school curriculum. Young women should have access to the health services and economic opportunities the constitution guarantees. And lastly, but very importantly, the province should put funds into campaigns that challenge long held beliefs that equate manhood with dominance over women and that grant too many men a sense of entitlement to sex without a corresponding sense of responsibility.