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Fact-checking Unesco’s claims about teenage pregnancy in South Africa

In a discussion on preventing pregnancy in school-age kids, a representative from the UN agency raised concern about teenage pregnancy rates in South Africa and teen mothers’ access to social grants. How accurate were her figures?

  • Mpini exaggerated the number of teen pregnancies in South Africa. The latest official data puts the number at 106,408 in 2019 - not 121,000. 

  • But her figure of 3,500 births to girls 14 and younger can’t be proven and could be significantly higher. Girls under 16, who cannot get an ID, are less likely to report births than older mothers.

  • Data on teenage mothers receiving child care grants has limitations. Estimates put the figure at 2.7% but these grants are also often collected by grandmothers and other caregivers and not the young mothers.

Teen pregnancy is a pressing issue in South Africa. According to the Western Cape provincial government, teen pregnancies can pose a risk to both the mother and child’s health and cause socio-economic problems, such as continuing the cycle of poverty.

On 29 June 2021, the national department of basic education, youth-led non-profit organisation Agape Youth Movement and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) hosted a webinar on preventing both bullying and pregnancy in schools. 

During the webinar Unesco national programme director Buyiswa Mpini made three claims about teenage pregnancy in South Africa. 

She said: “According to the latest statistics 121,000 [teen] pregnancies were experienced in our country in 2019 and out of these ones there’s about 3,500 that [were] between the ages of 10 and 14 years”.

She also claimed that “research found out that less than 20% of teenage mothers access the childcare grant”. 

We have contacted Mpini for the source of her claims but have not yet received a response. 

Do her teen pregnancy numbers check out? And do less than 20% of teen mothers access the child support grant? We checked.

Claim

“According to the latest statistics 121,000 [teen] pregnancies were experienced in our country in 2019 …”

Verdict

Exaggerated

Teenage or adolescent pregnancy refers to pregnancy in women under the age of 20. Compiling accurate data on the topic can be difficult. 

According to Katharine Hall, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, this is because it’s “hard to determine how many pregnancies end in miscarriage, still-birth or abortion”.

Because of this researchers tend to rely on live birth data. This refers to the “percentage of women in an age group who have given birth to a live child”. 

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) publishes annual data on live births recorded in the country, based on the department of home affairs' national birth registration system.

The latest report showed that there were 106,408 live births to mothers aged 10 to 19 in 2019. These births were recorded as “current” as they took place in 2019 and were registered between January 2019 and February 2020. A further 23,240 births from 2018 and earlier years were registered in 2019.

We rate the claim exaggerated.

Claim

In 2019 there were 3,500 pregnancies in girls aged between 10 and 14.

Verdict

Unproven

The latest data from Stats SA shows that there were 3,055 live births registered for mothers aged 10 to 14 in 2019. A further 2,057 births were registered late that year. 

Hall told Africa Check that the 10 to 14 age group is a “standard five-year age band” used by Stats SA. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that a 10-year-old gave birth that year. Based on this, we could conclude Mpini’s claim was slightly exaggerated, but the real numbers are likely to be substantially higher than 3,500.

Figures ‘likely underreported’ 

The numbers from Stats SA will likely be underreported, according to Hall. This is because Stats SA only looks at registered births.

“We estimate that around 200,000 births are not registered within the current year [for all ages],” she said. 

“A substantial but unknown number of these births will be births to young mothers and teenagers. It is more difficult to register a birth if the mother does not have an identity document.”

South African citizens are only eligible for an ID document when they turn 16.

She added that teen pregnancies tend to be unplanned and that family-planning services need to be made more available and accessible so that teenagers can use them without fear of stigma.

Claim

Research found that less than 20% of teenage mothers access the childcare grant.

Verdict

Unproven

The child support grant is provided by the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). The grant is currently R460 a month per child. 

It is paid to primary caregivers of children younger than 18. The caregiver must be a South African citizen earning less than R52,800 per year if single or with a combined income of less than R105,600 if married. 

Prof Monde Makiwane, a chief research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, has done extensive research on teen pregnancy in South Africa. In 2010 he published a report which found “no positive correlation” between the child support grant and teenage fertility rates. (Note: The analysis only looked at pregnancies in girls aged 15 to 19.)

The report examined data on teenage fertility rates and the child support grant between 1998 to 2005. It used data from government social grant databases, as well as data from Stats SA’s demographic and health surveys, general household surveys and the 2001 population census.

Makiwane found that only 2.69% of mothers between the ages of 15 to 19 were accessing the child support grant in 2005. This was an increase from 1.64% of mothers in this age group who accessed the grant in 1998. These figures were consistent with a report Makiwane published in 2006.

The study is now over 15 years old and may not reflect the current situation. Makiwane told Africa Check he did not have more recent figures but he did not have reason to believe the distribution would have changed.

‘I do not understand where less than 20% comes from’ 

Makiwane’s study has been cited by researchers as evidence that less than 20% of teen mothers are accessing the grant. However, he told Africa Check he didn’t understand how that link was made: “I do not understand where the ‘less than 20%’ comes from.”

He also said that the low numbers of teen mothers receiving the grant was because grandmothers often received the grant on their behalf.

Katharine Hall of UCT’s Children’s Institute said the primary caregiver of the child received the grant and this might not necessarily be the biological mother.

“If the biological mother is an adolescent she may still be at school, or studying at a college, or earning income to help support the household, or seeking work elsewhere,” she explained. “Large numbers of children in South Africa are cared for by grandparents or other relatives who receive child support grants for them.”

Based on the lack of data we rate this claim unproven.

CORRECTION: Africa Check previously stated that a Health Systems Trust report claimed that “only 20% of teenage mothers were accessing a social grant”. However the trust did not conduct the research. We apologise for the error. 

 

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