No evidence for Sky claim women drink to harm babies and collect benefit

Comments 3

While evidence that women drink too much while pregnant is widespread, no research backs Sky News' claim that South African mothers drink heavily deliberately to damage their unborn babies and claim disability benefits.

A report published on Sunday by the UK-based channel Sky News made a startling claim. Pregnant women in the Eastern Cape, the channel reported, are drinking heavily deliberately in order to damage their unborn babies so that they can claim disability benefits for the child.

It has been known for many years that drinking during pregnancy can harm the development of the unborn child, and in many countries authorities advise women against drinking any alcohol when pregnant.

It is also known that South Africa suffers a high rate of women drinking heavily during pregnancy, thus causing their unborn child to develop so-called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), a range of conditions that can leave the child with speech problems, physical deformities, growth deficiency, learning difficulties and behavioural issues.

What is new, or relatively new, is the claim that, as the Sky report put it: “Mothers in one of South Africa’s poorest areas are drinking heavily to deliberately damage their unborn babies – just so that they can claim disability benefit.”

The Herald made similar claim in September

The report, which has caused a flurry of comment online, in fact echoes claims made in September 2012 in an article in The Herald, a Port Elizabeth based paper.

“Impoverished pregnant teenage girls in Nelson Mandela Bay are  drinking heavily so their babies can be born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder – enabling them to qualify for a R1,200 disability grant rather that the R280 child grant,” The Herald claimed in the report.

A woman identified as Sheryldene Young, 28, of Timothy Valley near Malabar, was quoted as claiming to see young mothers drinking while pregnant deliberately in order to get the disability grant for their unborn child.

“Out of every 100 girls, 99 are getting pregnant and drinking to get the grant,” the newspaper reported the single mother as saying.

The newspaper also spoke with Gennie Hendricks, the manager of the Miracle Kids centre in Helenvale, who made the same claim that women were falling pregnant and giving birth to children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome deliberately to gain the benefit income.

“They do this so they can get a disability grant, R1 200, as opposed to R280 for a normal child support grant,” she was quoted as saying.

Clear evidence of heavy drinking during pregnancy

Speaking to Africa Check, Leana Olivier, the head of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR), a leading authority on alcohol abuse in South Africa, said that many South African women do, indeed, drink heavily while pregnant and the country has some of the highest reported rate of FASD in the world, as shown in its research.

Given that in-depth studies have only been done in three South African provinces, FARR itself does not give a national figure but notes that the Medical Research Council estimates a national rate of 1.4 percent while the Department of Health estimates 6 percent. Either way, “this is of great concern to us. Yes, our drinking in SA is a very serious problem,” Olivier said.

However, she was sceptical about some of the claims made in the Sky and Herald articles about both the prevalence of FASD in the Eastern Cape and the reasons why women drink.

“I think this is a total exaggeration. I suspect that every child with a drinking mum is receiving a FASD label,” she said.

“FARR colleagues have interviewed thousands of pregnant women and mothers of children with FASD to date and have not come across one single mother who reported that she ‘drank on purpose to cause disability in her child so as to qualify for a disability grant’.”

“In our experience every single woman, irrespective of her educational or socio-economic status always responds with ‘if I had only known’ when she is told that her child has FASD due to her alcohol use during pregnancy,” she added.

No research backs up the claim of deliberate harm

So where does the claim come from that women are deliberately harming their unborn children in order to claim benefits which, according to social security experts, it would be hard for them to get for children with FASD, anyway?

A spokesman for Sky TV told Africa Check that the claim in the report was based on interviews with police, community members and people shown in the Sky film. The spokesman acknowledged that Sky had not found any research which backed up its claim. But he said this was why it was an important issue to raise.


While there is widespread evidence of women in South Africa drinking heavily when pregnant and thus causing harm to their unborn child, no research has shown that this is done deliberately in order to enable them to claim disability benefit for the child.

If such evidence does exist, we would be interested to see it.

Without such evidence, the claim appears to be entirely unsubstantiated.

Edited by Peter Cunliffe-Jones

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Comment on this report

Comments 3
  1. By kelltrill

    Thanks for opening your site up to comments! And thanks for addressing this issue. I was concerned about the legitimacy of it when I saw the claims. It does sound like something that could be more than plausible, but I’d be interested to see some proper research done on this.

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  2. By Barbara Holtmann

    Thanks for this.
    The Herald and SKY reports are as you have said deeply disturbing and irresponsible, based on anecdote and unsupported by research. Prof Rachel Jewkes conducted excellent research refuting previous claims that girls get pregnant to access social grants.
    It is also really worrying that a police member is allowed to offer to international media what can be no more than an opinion on such an important issue and that his opinion is regarded as having gravitas simply because he is a police member. If the claims are true, then we need to think about an appropriate response – we are signatories to many international treaties and protocols as well as subject to an extensive national statutory framework that outlaws any action that damages a child.
    We have massive problems with alcohol abuse, family planning, parenting, child abuse, neglect, family health. It would be wonderful (if less immediately newsworthy) to see deep deliberation about how to shift the fragile, vulnerable social system that undermines our society to a place where every child lives his or her best life, supported and nurtured by mother, father, extended family and communities.

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Mark Whitford

    I’m not sure about Africa, but I used to work in the Department of Social Services for the State of South Dakota on one of the reservations in the 1990’s. I know for a fact that this behavior was done there. If you have 3-4 children with FAS, and you have no income or resources, you can get SSI for them. At that time, it equated to $1500-$2000/month income. Then, having disabled children and being native American and living on a reservation, other benefits such as free housing (well, it was supposed to be rental on a sliding scale, but few ever paid their portion) and such and you had a pretty good life in some cases. Now, this was NOT the norm by any means, but there were more than one families that I personally was involved with who did this. So, it is plausible.

    Reply Report comment

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