South African President Jacob Zuma arrives to give his State of the Nation address at the opening session of parliament in Cape Town, February 12, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

A few days ago, the South African cabinet approved a progressive and far-reaching strategy designed to lower its exceptionally high rates of teen pregnancy and provide access to comprehensive reproductive health care to adolescents. This positive development is, however, undermined by bizarre comments made yesterday by President Jacob Zuma that teen mothers should be separated from their children and sent away to a “faraway” place until they complete their education. 

Roughly one in three of South Africa’s teenagers has been pregnant, the majority unplanned, a 2013 study shows. The country’s new strategy, which will operate across various ministries and government departments, aims to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to give teenagers better access to sexual and reproductive information and health services. It has been welcomed by both public health specialists and human rights activists.

Zuma’s comments are not only at odds with South Africa’s constitutional guarantees of equality, dignity, and reproductive freedom for women and girls; they will likely undermine the strategy before it’s even gotten underway.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed many hundreds of pregnant adolescents and teen mothers worldwide. Many described their powerlessness to negotiate safer sex and how their lack of access to information on sex, family planning, and reproductive health care drove them into early motherhood. Many told us how they were often forced into sex, and did not understand how contraception worked or where to get it. When they were able to access reproductive health care, they faced judgmental attitudes from health care workers.  

Painfully, many girls also described how pregnancy ended their schooling, infringing on their right to education. Almost uniformly, they said if they could, they would go back to school. Rather than forcibly separating young mothers from their children, states should offer a variety of support options to keep pregnant teens and young mothers in school. These options should include easy access to childcare facilities for teen mothers, evening schools, and even boarding schools – a range of measures that will help the girls complete their education. It cannot, however, be at the cost of girls’ rights to freedom and dignity and at the expense of their children.