Pregnant 14 year olds and the Adultification of Black girls

School pregnancy shock
Pic: Esa Alexander

“Apho ndikufuma khona” was uttered to me at nine years of age. At that age I understood that my body had become a sexually violatable space.  These and other comments I grew up hearing from both older men and older boys signalling to me that my body had become not only sexually desirable but sexually available – even against my will.

I was nine when I first realised that I was sexually desirable to men. I was younger when my mother began disciplining me for how I set, crossed my legs, what I wore and how I used my body. By used I mean how I played and who I played with. I cannot remember a time when my body was not being policed by the women in my family. From my aunts to my mother, my body was always under surveillance.

These were the thoughts that came to me when twitter went into an uproar around the pregnancy of a 14 year old. Predictably it was not the man – rumoured to be a 24 year old – who was being shamed for impregnating a girl-child.

 “Wa’phapha”, “these teens are enjoying sex like adults”, “no she wasn’t raped because she wasn’t forced”.

Black girls are adultified – projected as older than they are – from as young as 5 years old[1]. We are projected as more sexually mature resulting in our exploitation and abuse by older men from a young age. Black women and girls lose their innocence sooner resulting in them having to “mature” at an early age, depriving us of important developmental milestones. Additionally young Black girls don’t get to sexually experiment with our peers – in healthy and protected spaces. Yes sexual experimentation is a key part of teenage-hood which all children should be allowed to experience WITH THEIR PEERS.

Of course the ways in which the sexual assault and raping of young Black girls is justified is rooted in anti-blackness. Black women were not women in the “white woman” sense. In fact Black women became the oppositional representation of white womanhood. In simple terms, what white women were, Black woman (and girls) are not.

Whereas “white womanhood” is signified by purity (sexual and otherwise), piety, deference, domesticity, passionlessness, chasisty, cleanness and fragility, “Black womanhood” was characterised as primitive, lustful, seductive, physically strong, domineering, unwomanly and dirty.[2]

The characterisation of Black womanhood as outside the possibility of womanhood is rooted in an understanding of Black people as subhuman and incapable of possessing those attributes which make one essentially human i.e. human dignity. Essentially Black woman are seen as sexual objects and Black girls are viewed no differently.

Twitter comments around the pregnancy of a 14 year old Black girl predictably from Black men and women vehemently denied her the innocence of childhood and went further by denying her even the protection of the law. I rarely argue the use of the law as a measure of moral behaviour. However it is telling how high the levels of misgynoir rose as Black men and women denied a 14 year old Black girl the protection of the law.

Of course we may assume that the adultification of Black girls is harmless and is limited to families and individual cases – after all teenage pregnancies are older than our democracy.

pregnant teen school
Pic: Namibian Broadcasting Corporation

In 2013 the Constitutional Court found school policies which discriminated against pregnant learners – who were always young girl-children – unconstitutional.[3] Pregnant learners are excluded from school and invariably end up dropping out of school as a result of school policies which make their return to school difficult. Discriminatory practices against pregnant high school girls include the suspension from school of pregnant learners; refusal by the school to provide pregnant learners with homework or tasks while away; requiring pregnant learners to pay a deposit to the school in case of medical emergency; telling students they may not attend school without a parent or someone responsible for them; schools refusing to provide “catch-up” plans for students who have been away due to birth.

Black girls who fall pregnant experience a high drop-out rate due to various discriminatory and shaming practices. The education of the girl-child is the first to be compromised when she gets pregnant. The father – who is sometimes a teacher in the school is rarely called to account. This is because the characterisation of Black girls as “onopatazana”/”onondachazana” deprives them of the innocence of childhood and the protections afforded to the young.

Protect Black girl-children

Black girl children need our protection. We need to not only defend their innocence but we need to defend their right as children to make mistakes and not have childhood mistakes impact on their economic opportunities as adults. Black girl children need our protection because they too deserve to enjoy the full experience of childhood.

[1] Womens Media Center “The Adultification of Black Girls”, available at http://www.womensmediacenter.com/fbomb/the-adultification-of-black-girls

[2] Mahassen Mgadmi “Black Women’s Identity: Stereotypes, Respectability and Passionalessness (1890-1930), available at https://journals.openedition.org/lisa/806

[3] Head of Department, Department of Education, Free State Province v Welkom High School and Another; Head of Department of Education, free State province v Harmony High School and Another (CCT 103/12) [2013], available at http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2013/25.html