Lockdowns and other restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus crisis have led to a rise in teenage pregnancies in Africa. Aid organizations are warning of a regression in girls' rights to education and health. Early childbearing, high fertility rates and inadequate access to maternal health services are the main contributing factors in the high number of maternal deaths among young women in Africa. Girls aged 15-19 years are twice as likely to die during childbirth as women 20 years and above. Since recent times, several governmental and non-governmental organizations in some African countries focused on reducing the adolescent pregnancy rate, although a very slow progress was made.
In many African countries, however, the pandemic has precipitated another worrying consequence: a rise in teenage or child pregnancies directly linked to school closings that governments have ordered to curb the spread of the virus. In deeply conservative Zimbabwe, where getting pregnant while in school previously led to automatic expulsion, authorities have relaxed the rule because a large number of young girls fell pregnant during the coronavirus-enforced closure of schools. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government says nearly 5,000 teenage girls became pregnant in January and February alone, while about 1,800 entered early marriages during the same period, most of them in the poorest suburbs of the southern African country.
In equally conservative Ghana, where girls often do not have access to contraception and abortion is banned except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s health is in danger, activists say unwanted teenage pregnancy soared after authorities closed schools for 10 months to try and curb COVID-19 infections. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than one in four young girls, or 26%, give birth before the age of 18 in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries like South Africa, girls as young as 10 years old have become pregnant over the past 18 months. Often they are left on their own at home while their parents, who cannot afford appropriate childcare, go out to work. In many cases, girls have fallen victim to male relatives living in the same house, or to neighbors
In neighboring Uganda, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) cites growing poverty as one reason for rising teen pregnancy rates. 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. Meanwhile in South Africa, the number of children born to teenage mothers in the most populous province, Gauteng, has increased by 60% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. One reason for the high rate of teenage pregnancy is that girls have very limited access to contraceptives or the option of safe abortion, according to the latest report from nongovernmental group Save the Children, which has raised concerns about the welfare of mothers and babies in pandemic times. Figures from the Gauteng health department indicate that between April 2020 and March 2021, more than 23,000 teens under the age of 18 gave birth — including 934 girls under the age of 14.
Angola has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. With a contraceptive prevalence rate of 14 per cent and an unmet need for family planning among girls aged 15-19 of 43 per cent, teenage pregnancies continue to be taboo. The country has 10 million girls and women of reproductive age and, although 75 percent of girls attend primary school, this proportion drops to around 16 per cent at secondary education level, which coincides with the age of first menstruation. High fertility rates and high levels of teenage pregnancy increase the risk of maternal mortality.
In November 2021, the Department of Statistics of the Republic of South Africa communicated that a total of 899 303 children were born in 2020, with 34 587 births being from mothers aged 17 years or younger—of the 34 587 births from teen mothers, 16 042 were aged 17 years while 688 were 10 years of age. Such figures are particularly concerning due to the increased risk of maternal complications for early motherhood which can subsequently lead to low neonatal survival rates.
The Makerere University School of Public Health in Uganda has reported that the number of teenage pregnancies rose by 28% during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Additionally, Uganda has also fallen short of its pledge at the East, Central and Southern Africa Health Community (ESAC-HC) conference in Lusaka, February 2020, to reduce teenage pregnancies from 25% to 13% by 2022. In addition to this, statistics from the Ghana Health Service (GHS) showed that about 13 teenage pregnancy cases were recorded every day in 2020, especially during the peak period of COVID-19, with a total of 109 888 teenage pregnancies with the youngest mothers being 10 years of age.
Adolescent pregnancy can also have negative social and economic effects on girls, their families and communities. Unmarried pregnant adolescents may face stigma or rejection by parents and peers as well as threats of violence. Girls who become pregnant before age 18 are also more likely to experience violence within a marriage or partnership.
Over 30 African governments have adopted measures that protect adolescent girls’ right to stay in school during pregnancy and motherhood, but Human Rights Watch has found that the levels of protection and implementation vary. Governments often lack clear guidelines on how these students may continue their education, or have conditional re-entry policies, leading to irregular enforcement. For example, girls in Uganda are required to go on mandatory maternity leave from school when they are at least three months pregnant. They are only allowed to resume schooling after one year when their child is at least 6 months old, regardless of their personal situation.
Some African countries, such as the Republic of the Congo, do not have explicit protections related to the retention of pregnant girls or adolescent mothers in schools, thus jeopardizing the lives and futures of thousands of girls. Such nations should take affirmative measures to guarantee the right to education for these students, including by adopting human rights-compliant policies to ensure students may remain in school for as long as they choose, and that they are able to resume their education in public schools free from complex processes for withdrawal and re-entry.