A number of years ago, when I was still working in the development sector, I visited an organisation working in an area in Mpumalanga that has high rates of ‘teen pregnancy’. Most of the visit was spent at the local primary school where I met girls as young as 13 who were balancing first-time motherhood and school. These girls were figuring out their own school lunches and nighttime feeds, and worrying about childcare as well as maths homework. This is all beside the glaring fact that many of them were raising children conceived through sexual violence. And all of them were raising these children alone, without any input or word from the fathers.
I thought of these girls when I heard that Marie Stopes South Africa, a private, non-profit provider of women’s healthcare services, in collaboration with MTV Base are producing and will be presenting what they’re branding as the South African version of the American reality show 16 and Pregnant. I have a lot of respect for Marie Stopes and the work they do. In a country where many women and girls are forced to rely on inadequate public healthcare, they work tirelessly to ensure that South African women have access to good quality affordable care. In addition to this, they are in the trenches, fighting the rampant, dangerous misinformation about reproductive health and rights, and educating young people as well as a stubbornly puritanical society about the importance of safe and consensual sexual practices. They’ve also recently started partnering with state facilities to ensure that they reach the most vulnerable women, whilst also sharing their model with state facilities.
So, it is with this respect for the Marie Stopes track record and mission that I want to be excited about this ‘documentary’. Instead, I would describe my feelings on the matter as ranging from ‘cautiously optimistic’ to ‘barely convinced’. It’s not that I don’t trust the stated premise of the show, which is to educate young women on the particular challenges facing South African teen parents. It’s not that I don’t trust that the show will provide information along with the stories it’ll showcase. It’s that I don’t trust Marie Stopes’s mission in the hands of MTV and the 16 and Pregnant brand.
Putting aside the spectacular and problematic nature of the reality television format, what is particularly troubling is the mythology around the effects of 16 and Pregnant. Initial criticism of the show was that it glamorised teen parenthood. Defenders of the show were quick to point to research that suggested that the show was actually an effective deterrent, and was behind the declining teen pregnancy rates across the United States. The show was thus mythologised and presented as cautionary tale, rather than as the encouragement its detractors claimed it to be.
Whilst the producers behind the forthcoming South African version have not pointed to this argument, their press release contains traces of the mythology:
“Sixteen and Pregnant highlights the many societal, economic and health challenges faced by pregnant teenage girls,” said Georgia Arnold, the MTV Staying Alive Foundation executive director.
She said this ranged from a lack of basic sex education to peer pressure, health problems, parental disapproval, unwanted responsibility, a lack of money, community gossip, the difficulty of continuing an education, facing life as a single parent and fears about how to raise the baby.
“By highlighting the sacrifices they are obliged to make and the hurdles they have to overcome, we hope to encourage them to take control of their lives and bodies by helping them to make more informed choices about sex, sexual health and contraception,” Arnold added.
What this suggests is a perpetuation of the narrative of pregnant teenagers’ stories as tools for education and, ultimately, prevention of teen pregnancy. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a sore need for honest and unflinching discussion and education about teenage sexuality. It’s obvious that what teenagers are given now does not equip them to make healthy and safe sexual choices. It certainly doesn’t offer empowerment or emancipation to the many young people who are stare down the barrel of sexual violence. This is why the work that Marie Stopes and organisations like it does is crucial: it provides much-needed judgment-free information and support and helps prevent the damage that can be wrought by misinformation.
However, I’m afraid that taking the stories of South African teen mothers and presenting them as part of a narrative of prevention is ultimately hurtful. Motherhood is hard, that’s for sure. I’m well past my teens, and have a co-parent and the support of a wonderful village at my disposal. And it is still incredibly difficult and often lonely. I cannot imagine what it is like if you’re a teenager, going it mostly alone, with limited financial and social resources. Given this inescapable reality, should the focus on the stories of teen motherhood not be on support and empowerment?
In addition to all of the support I have outlined above, one of the saving graces for me as a first-time mother has been the space to talk about and think through motherhood. This takes many different forms, some informal (hello there, Whatsapp groups) and many formal. The simple act of meeting other women who are on this journey and being able to share in some of the less talked about, less feted aspects of motherhood has been invaluable. One of my favorite mother-warrior-writers, Renegade Mama, has written of this important and difficult-to-articulate fellowship that all new mothers need:
Look at the woman. Look at her. Look at the woman sitting across from you on that couch. See the human transformed. See the human with a milky chest and belly still half-holding a baby and the tired in her eyes. See the woman who has become a mother and maybe doesn’t even know what that means yet and look as hard as you can into that fear and love and pain and ask her. Tell her. Open it all to her. And if you haven’t experienced it, listen. Ask. Hold and love. […] Talk about the moment you nearly couldn’t do it. Talk about the second you curled onto your bed and had the worst thought you’ve ever had pass the center of your mind. With cracked voice and broken smile, I would have talked to you. I would have told you the dark, and then we could have shared it. And maybe I would have known the light is right around the f*****g corner. And my friend, it is.
More than anything, what new mothers need is to be seen and to be heard and to be given the platform to express the beautiful, painful, hot mess of complexities and contradictions that motherhood is. I would imagine this is even more urgent if you are a teenager who now has to figure out how to grow into your role as you grow up yourself. What teen mothers hardly need is to have their stories and their struggles turned into ‘prevention fodder’, and thrown in the faces of others who are navigating the choppy waters of adolescence. Putting aside the problematic undertones of showcasing teen mothers’ stories as a way of ‘scaring’ other teenagers into responsible sexual behaviour, I highly doubt that this approach helpful to anyone (no matter what the 16 and Pregnant defenders say), least of all teen mothers. As lucky as I am to have my formal and informal ‘mama spaces’, I am painfully aware of the very middle-class nature of these spaces, and the way in which my class identity enables me to access them. And I’m even more aware that as much as I need these spaces, there are mothers out there who need them more. So, what I feel would be helpful would be to open up the discursive spaces that are often dominated by middle-class women like myself to a variety of mothers.
I am not convinced that the 16 and Pregnant brand and its attendant deterrent mythology is best placed to do that. It feels like a sorry waste of the stories of these young mothers, and of the opportunity that such storytelling presents for teen moms.
Based on their track record, I am quite sure this is a challenge and ‘course-correct’ that Marie Stopes is up to. It remains to be seen whether their partners at MTV are up to it as well.