South Africa has a serious teenage pregnancy problem. And some of the nation’s political minds are coming up with the most creative of methods to solve it: sterilisation, birth control implants, banishment to a former prison island.

In March, President Jacob Zuma stoked controversy when he called for young mothers to be separated from their children and sent off to Robben Island. It was on this former incarceration isle that Nelson Mandela, among other detainees, had spent years during the anti-apartheid struggle.

“They must be taken and be forced to go to school, far way,” Zuma was quoted as saying. “They must be educated by government until they are empowered and they can take care of their kids, take them to Robben Island or any other island, sit there, study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.”

His office later issued a clarification, saying the president was only emphasising that teenagers should study. This was, however, not the first time Zuma was suggesting this idea. It was a reiteration of remarks he had made in 2009.

Multiple concerns

Last week the South African government proposed making condoms available in schools, setting off a public debate and shining the national spotlight once again on the issue of teenage pregnancies.

Latest government numbers show that more than 21,000 school students got pregnant between April 2013 and March 2014, including 717 who were in primary school. About 30% of teens report ever having been pregnant, according to a 2013 review of teenage pregnancy in the country.

The burden on young mothers, mostly from poor backgrounds, has been one concern here. The possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, in a country with among the highest rates of HIV incidence in the world, is another worry.

Politicians too have been fretting about the problem but from a fiscal point of view. They argue that pregnant teens end up as a burden on the state since they are able to claim social benefits. There is also the theory that some willingly get pregnant precisely to access free housing and other schemes.

When Zuma made his insensitive comments, he drew criticism from many quarters. Cape Town councillor and Cape Muslim Congress leader Yagyah Adams termed Zuma’s approach “too much” in a letter to the editor of The Cape Times in April. That was right before he went on to outline in his detailed missive, an ostensibly better method of tackling the issue.

“What is required is a more assertive approach,” he wrote, “which includes sterilisation.”

Fiscal burden

For Adams it is all about sparing the exchequer additional financial burden. “When immature teens reproduce, they must be barred from adding future financial burdens to society. Among the reckless, sterilisation should not be considered a moral issue, but rather a social and financial matter.”

Adams was happy to expand on his views when contacted by “The local and provincial governments have spent hundreds of millions of rands on educating young people and providing them free condoms,” he said. “There comes a time when you are spending time and money, and people are unable to learn. How do we uplift teenagers if they are going to be their own worst enemies?”

The KwaZulu Natal provincial government has tried implementing birth control measures. Last year, women students shortlisted to be a part of an exchange programme to study at Manipal University in Jaipur were implanted with birth control chips in their arms before they left.

The idea was born after what one newspaper described as “the Cuban pregnancy scandal”: four students who went to Cuba as part of a study group became pregnant in 2014. The KwaZulu Natal government maintained that students travelling to India were given a choice on whether they wanted the chips implanted.

Wrong approach

Experts have been critical of the government’s approach to the issue, describing it as sensational and blame-focused. “The president’s comment is an illustration of the state’s distraction from the problem and an inability to address it head-on,” said Deevia Bhana, a professor at the University of KwaZulu Natal, who has written on gender, childhood sexualities and education. “Young women are blamed and their morality is questioned, rather than looking at the social problem they find themselves in.”

She said teenage pregnancy was largely rooted in poverty and situations where young women were subjected to coercive sexual practices. Researchers have also pointed to other issues, including gendered roles and expectations, improper sex education and unavailability of contraceptives.

Compounding the challenges for young mothers is the lack of social support, social stigma, and the hardship of raising children while trying to complete their education, often in the face of an adversarial schooling system.

Schools have struggled to deal with teenage pregnancy, in some cases by unlawfully forbidding pregnant students from attending classes. Last year, at Masibambane High School in Kraaifontein, a township outside Cape Town, students organised a signature campaign and petitioned their principal to allow their pregnant peers to come to school. “There is no proper sex education,” said one Class X student who has seen many of her friends get pregnant. “They’re scared to tell us things we need to know to protect ourselves.”