Reproductive health is a vital part of general health and a prerequisite for social, economic and human development, says Professor Pranitha Maharaj of the School of Built Environment and Development Studies.
Maharaj was speaking during her Inaugural Lecture on the challenges and priorities of Reproductive Health in South Africa.
She shared lessons from her more than 20 years of work in the field of reproductive health, discussing some of the challenges facing South Africa while drawing on her research in the field and outlining what she believes are some of the priority issues in reproductive health today.
The lecture started by focusing on two studies she is involved in to understand the reasons for early childbearing among women as well as young mothers’ experiences and perspectives of pregnancy. The study was conducted among young African mothers in a KwaZulu-Natal township and another study was completed in a rural area in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
She found that in the communities, early childbearing was not uncommon and that early motherhood also impacted their schooling. The study engaged with the ongoing debate about Child Support Grants (CSG) in South Africa and their role in increasing teenage pregnancy.
‘There is a widely held perception that young women become pregnant because they want to access the grant and as a result, they dump their children with their grandmothers and spend the money on themselves. In the study, the young women made it clear that the CSG was insufficient to support themselves and their children, therefore they did not have children because they wanted to access the grant,’ said Maharaj.
She also drew attention to young fathers who were often marginalised due to factors that mitigate against what is considered an acceptable level of responsibility of fatherhood. Maharaj claimed that young fathers faced some of the same challenges as young mothers, such as the burden of an unplanned and sometimes unwanted pregnancy which impacted negatively on their academic performance and ultimately, their life chances.
‘The children often live with their mothers or their mothers’ families. Visits are strictly regulated and young fathers can only see their children at certain times. One of the main reasons for this was the cultural practice of paying damages, inhlawulo, to the family of the girl that they impregnated as a way of apologising to the girl’s family for having brought disgrace to them,’ said Maharaj.
Overall, Maharaj found that communication was a key factor in promoting safer and healthier sexual practices and that condom use within marriage was uncommon. Research results further suggest that some couples were willing to use condoms at least some of the time if they perceived themselves at risk of HIV infection from their partners.
She noted that South Africa had one of the most progressive policies on sexual and reproductive health, and services were available free of charge in public healthcare facilities. However, ‘the challenges remain to make services accessible, affordable, and available to all segments of the population. More effort is needed to change the stereotypical views that prevent men and women from meeting their reproductive needs.
‘Making sure that all individuals have access to sexual and reproductive health services contributes to fulfilling men’s and women’s reproductive rights, providing more choices to best suit their needs. In turn, when women and men are healthy, their communities are stronger, economic opportunities are greater and countries are in a better position to meet the needs of their people,’ said Maharaj.