[SPECIAL REPORT] Pain, fear, hunger & hope: one day in a teenage parent's life

It's been two years since the state of disaster was declared and during that time teenage parenthood reached an all-time high.

A pregnant teen goes through donates clothes and toys from NGO, Rays of Hope. Picture: Xanderleigh Dookey Makhaza/Eyewitness News

Editors' note: please be advised that this story contains suicide ideation.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children.

JOHANNESBURG - Tuesday, 15 March 2022, marks two years since South Africa’s national state of disaster was declared. Since its implementation two years ago, the country has had to deal with the devastating effects of the restrictions, let alone the fatal results of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effect was felt deeply by the youth, especially young women.

Eyewitness News spent a few days with a teenage mother to learn what some of these often misunderstood children deal with on a daily basis.

Thursday, 24 February 2022

It’s 5am and grade 11 learner Refilwe is up to get ready for school. She is tired and not in the mood to go but unlike most teenagers, she has no choice as she has three minors in her care: her two younger siblings and a four-year-old son.

Refilwe is a 19-year-old mother living in Alexandra and is also responsible for her child-headed home.

Teenage pregnancy in South Africa is a crisis that continues to grow, and with not enough interventions to prevent the plight, many girls are susceptible to falling into the same trap. There is very little information about the men and boys who impregnate them.

Since the start of the pandemic, the teenage pregnancy rate in Gauteng skyrocketed with a 60% increase. During this time, schools were closed to prevent the spread of the virus. But so too were businesses and places of recreation for children.

According to the Gauteng Department of Health, young women aged between 14 and 19 gave birth to 15,882 babies between 2019 and 2020 in the province alone. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, between 2020 and 2021, this increased significantly to 20,250 teen births. There were 23,226 recorded pregnancies by teenagers - 2,976 were terminated. Nationally, says Statistics South Africa, "a total of 33,899 births occurred to mothers aged 17 years and younger [in 2020, over 600 children aged 10-13 years (including late birth registrations) gave birth, of these, 499 gave birth in 2020."

Refilwe had her son,_ Realeboga_, when she was 16 and had just entered high school. She said that her mother, who was alive at that time, was disappointed.

“I was like, I'm pregnant, at a young age, I'm still at school. I didn't know anything about the pregnancy. I just told myself that I'm going to do an abortion,” she said.

The Gauteng Health Department recorded 15,882 teen births between 2019 and 2020. During the pandemic between 2020 and 2021, this figure increased to 20,250. Picture: Xanderleigh Dookey Makhaza/Eyewitness News

But despite the disappointment, Refilwe’s mother wouldn’t allow her to terminate the pregnancy and told her that she would support her through her parenting process. She described the birth as terrifying and painful, which ended in a C-section. But with her mother by her side, the teenager was comforted.

“When I had Realeboga, I didn't know anything. I didn't know how to breastfeed. I didn't know how to change a nappy … my mom was there for me,” said Refilwe.

With her mother at her side, she managed to weather gossip from her peers during her pregnancy.

“My mum just told me, 'Don't even put them in your mind. Just do what you came for in school ... people always talk, good things or bad things, but you just be strong’.”

'SOMETIMES I THINK OF KILLING MYSELF'

It’s now just before 7am and Refilwe sits on her bed and waits for Realeboga and her four-year-old sister Keabetswe* to finish eating their cereal. Just a step away is the other bed where her 10-year-old brother, Oratile, is packing his school bag.

The young family of four share a small room in a women’s hostel. This is the same room that they shared with Refilwe’s mother when she was alive.

Refilwe’s mother passed away in 2021 from COVID-19 complications.

“Every time when I'm alone at home, I always think about my mum. I always ask why God took my mum,” she said. “She's not there, and I can't accept that this person is gone, and she will never come back. Like when I look at my youngest sibling, I wonder what I’m going to say when she grows up ... I just feel weak.”

Refilwe doesn’t stop crying while talking about her mother.

“Sometimes I think of killing myself so that maybe I can go and see my mum. But I always think about my siblings. If I go and commit suicide, who will my siblings stay with? I am the one who has to be strong,” she said.

WATCH: A day in the life of a teenage mother: Navigating life as a young mom in South Africa

Refilwe and her son and siblings rush out of their one-room home to go to school. Today, she is walking her son to pre-school, which is about a 10-minute walk from their home. At the same time, Oratile walks Keabetswe to her day-care. On other days, the teenager and 10-year-old switch responsibilities.

Since their mother’s passing, Refilwe has had to rely on her brother to help. Just like his sister, Oratile had to become an adult before his time. Refilwe describes him as a pillar of strength. He comforts her when the pressure of being the head of the family becomes overwhelming.

“He told me that, ‘you know what, sister. I see everything you going through. I see everything you do for us. You showing me that you are strong. You are my big sister,’” said Refilwe.

A RAY OF HOPE

According to a general household survey done by Statistics South Africa in 2020, 19.7% children in South Africa live without both parents.

Refilwe has three other young siblings who are staying with her mother’s sister. She and her siblings are barely kept afloat by social grants. But Refilwe says it’s not enough to cover the entire month. Her and the other children in her care can go days without food.

“Like close to the 20th... Like, there's nothing. There's no more money. You can’t even buy bread,” she said.

Data from the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey showed that the rate of child hunger was much higher than during pre-pandemic levels.

Fortunately for Refilwe’s family, a non-profit organisation in Alexandra called Rays of Hope stepped in to assist. Refilwe was introduced to Rays of Hope a year after giving birth to Realeboga.

A pregnant teen picks through baby clothes for her child while attending a workshop at Rays of Hope. The NGO provides support, clothes and toys to the expectant young moms. Picture: Xanderleigh Dookey Makhaza/Eyewitness News

For 30 years, they have managed a large number of social outreach programmes, including a support programme called Young Moms. After school on a Friday, that’s where she is.

They have assisted Refilwe by providing food, clothing, sanitary pads and emotional support. They also helped with her mother’s funeral.

For Refilwe, Rays of Hope has given her a positive mindset towards a life of many setbacks.

Bertha Muchadeyi, programme manager of the Vulnerable Children & Families pillar for Rays of Hope, said that they saw a lot more teenage mothers coming through their doors since last year.

During the Young Moms support group’s first meeting of the year, there were more than 30 young mothers in attendance, some barely showing a baby bump.

The youngest mother at the meeting was 15-years-old. Muchadeyi says that as each week passes, Rays of Hope expects to see more teenagers needing help.

"Last year in one school there were 15 teens pregnant. The same school says currently there are 21. So from 15 last year to 21 this year - in one school,” she said.

IT'S ALL OUR RESPONSIBLITY

Lumka Oliphant, the national social development department’s chief director of communications, found that the cause of secrecy behind teenage pregnancy in South Africa was multifaceted: peer pressure, inaccessibility of contraceptives and a fear of going to clinics.

In Muchadeyi’s experience, it’s a lack of parental involvement or adult guidance that is exacerbating the problem.

“Most of these girls have nobody who is sitting them down, who is talking to them. They end up just giving in to peer pressure and because, 'my friend is doing it, so I'm going to do it'. And because they don't know, they end up getting pregnant,” said Muchadeyi.

Pregnant teens attend a workshop at Rays of Hope. Most of the girls at Rays of Hope are still at school, with the youngest one aged 15-years-old. Picture: Xanderleigh Dookey Makhaza/Eyewitness News

Leah, another teenage parent at the support group, said that when she told her mother she was pregnant at 16-years-old, her reaction was to simply accept it as “these things happen”.

“She knew that these things happened [to teenagers]. She didn't judge me. She just made me to be more comfortable. She just said that ‘you are not the first [child] to be pregnant and you won’t be the last,'” Leah said.

Leah said that fear and judgement were still some of the reasons why she and other teens were scared to talk to their parents about sex. She needed government intervention to break end the stigma.

“So, I think parents should be told that they should be more open with their children so that children can be more open with them; so that mothers can take their children to hospital for prevention and maybe teenage pregnancy will not spread so much,” she said.

WHO ARE THE FATHERS?

Muchadeyi said that it was mostly older men who were impregnating the teens. She said that the relationships they formed with older men was often because of poverty.

“They have that mentality of ‘there is nothing at home, the older men can give me money so that I can provide for myself or I can provide for the others at home’. And in many instances, the older men are actually taking advantage of the young girls, because they are offering money in exchange of sexual favours - and unprotected sexual favours - which lead to pregnancy. Once the girl falls pregnant, they dump the girl,” said Muchadeyi.

Part of the problem with addressing this issue was also the lack of information and data on who was impregnating the girls, leaving little to no consequences for them.

According to Statistics SA, no reliable information on fathers could be provided because more than 60% of births were delivered without details of the fathers. This is because Section 10 of the Births and Deaths Act prohibits unmarried fathers from having their information on the birth certificate, contributing to the high number of births with no information on fathers. It was only in September 2021 that the Constitutional Court ruled this was unconstitutional.

Rays of Hope with social workers from the provincial department of social development saw this as a need for intervention and have since identified teenage fathers to start a support group for them.

“Because right now, there are teen fathers that are just going scot-free. But if we bring them in, and we teach them intentionally, then we are not repeating the same cycle,” she said.

Muchadeyi said that for South Africa to raise a generation that will not repeat the same mistake, the youth needs support from the community and government.

“Yes, we've got a crisis on our hands. It's not to play the blame game. It's what it is that we need to do to get rid of this scourge,” Muchadeyi said.

She said to help teenage parents, they needed to be given unconditional acceptance and mentoring.

“Provide employment opportunities for those that cannot go back to school, being encouraged to finish school. Leadership opportunities, you know, there's a lot of support that, you know, society can actually give,” said Muchadeyi. “Sometimes it's just sitting in, listening in and just giving them your attention. To say, ‘I'm here, I'm not judging you. But I want to know where can I help,’” she said.

Oliphant told Eyewitness News that the protection of children was not a government issue but a societal one that South African citizens must take responsibility for, adding that underreporting of child abuse cases and child vulnerability was a problem they were trying to deal with.

“We want to encourage people when they see anything that has to do with the child, be it when they lose their parents, become orphans... It is important to make sure that you report it to the Department of Social Development and the police when you see something that is amiss about children,” Oliphant said.

‘DEAR DAUGHTER, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF’

Muchadeyi’s advice to teenage mothers is to keep dreaming.

“You can rise from that situation and be the best mother, be the best version of yourself that you could ever be, with the right support. Don't give up, believe in yourself, young girl. So I actually would love to say, 'dear daughter, believe in yourself,'” said Muchadeyi.

It’s 3pm at Rays of Hope and Refilwe opens up a packet of treats that Realeboga handed to her. After giving the bag back to him, she dotes on him.

“I was thinking about the time when I wanted to abort him … what was I trying to do? Look at him now. He’s growing up. I’ve learned so much from him,” she said. The father of her child is a little older than her and is currently at a rehabilitation centre. He is working towards being a contributing member of the family.

Refilwe plans to become a lawyer so that she can help others. But this wasn’t her initial answer when asked about what her dreams were – her first answer had her young family in mind.

“After finishing my school, I want to make my siblings live a better life. With support. With happiness. With all the beautiful things. And never think about our mum,” she said.

*Names have been changed to protect children’s identities.