THE preliminary results of an ongoing national study has found that teenage girls in the Eastern Cape are engaging in sex at an earlier age than girls in other parts of the country, starting from as young as 14 years and one month.
Gauteng follows closely with girls starting to have sex at the average age of 14.2 years.
The new research, which was presented by Neloufar Khan from the Department of Social Development at a conference in Cape Town last week, found that most girls in South Africa had sex for the first time before the age of 16 – which is the legal age of consent – and except for Mpumalanga and Gauteng, a large majority of the girls also fell pregnant for the first time before the age of 16.
The preliminary results of the study by the National Population Unit also found that most girls started having sex to prove their love to their boyfriends.
The researchers looked at communities in five provinces (KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng) where they interviewed 1417 young mothers between the ages of 13 and 18; 704 social service providers; and also held focus groups with boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 18, parents and community members.
PE Childline's early intervention programme manager Mandy Daniels said based on cases in the city, she believed the study was conservative in its findings as she had found children were engaging in sex and sexual experimentation from as early as six and seven.
"We have found cases of sexual abuse happening at primary schools where all the children involved are younger than 13. All the problems we have today are due to a break-down in effective parenting," she said.
Daniels said parents needed to be more approachable and communicate with their children more, especially about sex.
"Anyone can do it. Even if you are a single mother. As a parent you need to take more interest in your child. Know where your child is, what they are doing and who they are with. Teach them family values and morals from day one," Daniels said.
She said girls who engaged in sex from an early age, more often than not suffered from a low self-esteem and felt neglected and unloved in their own families.
Social worker Pamela Rubushe, based at Dora Nginza Hospital, said the situation had reached crisis level as an average of 50 teenagers, all aged 13 to 18, gave birth at the hospital each month.
"It has to do with social dysfunction. Drugs, alcohol and poverty are the main causes. These children are vulnerable and because there is a lack of education they do not know their rights."
Rubushe said in many cases young girls were being exploited for sex by older men in exchange for money.
"They cannot differentiate between love and sexual exploitation. They think sex and love are the same thing and because they do not get love at home they look for it with older men.
"They do not know that they have the right to say no or that they have the right to ask for their partner to wear a condom.
"In some cases their parents encourage them because their boyfriends buy groceries for the family and this is very sad."
Child Welfare South Africa regional director Dalene Ritter said the increase in children who were neglected or sexually abused was directly linked to the increase in children engaging in sexual activities at an earlier age.
She said an increase in levels of poverty also contributed. Children were also watching their parents engaging in sex because entire families often shared one- roomed homes or shacks.
The research also revealed that more than 60% of girls did not know they had the right to terminate their pregnancy, and even fewer knew emergency contraception was available and could be used to prevent pregnancy.