Is teenage pregnancy a tragedy of the commons?

Sasheenie Moodley // Garrett Hardin might expect teenage pregnancy to be a ‘tragedy of the commons.’ On the contrary, teenage pregnancy might be an opportunity for communal care.

Garrett Hardin (1968) argues that one of the greatest dangers to society is communal property. His “tragedy of the commons” is the notion that the “commons” is collectively damaged (Hardin 1998). The scholar explains that, when property is communal, each person believes that the next person is taking care of this property. As such, nobody ends up taking care of the property. Each person acts in their own self-interest with little regard for the overall welfare of the property and even less incentive to maintain it. Instead of taking care of the communal land, each person shirks this responsibility. Some scholars suggest that “narcissism” explains this behaviour (Campbell et al 2005). Over time, the communally-owned property is destroyed.

This theory is rooted in historic philosophy and socio-political economics. Hardin supposedly combined Locke’s work with theories presented by Adam Smith and William Forster Lloyd. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke (1690) outlines the beginnings of what would eventually become Hardin’s theory. Locke notes: land that is not taken care of will “be looked on as waste” (1690: Section 38). Following this, Hardin suggests that society will likely face a ‘tragedy’ when property or objects are communally owned.

It is interesting to consider the relevance of Hardin’s theory based on my work with pregnant teenagers. If pregnant girls are ‘owned’ by—or ‘belong’ to—a community, does this community ignore these girls? This is what Hardin might expect. Alternatively, does this community take care of these girls?

This piece draws on, and is contextualised within, my PhD fieldwork in a relatively remote (semi-rural) South African township. I worked with twenty pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers. What I observed in this township, in some instances, subtlety contradicts Hardin’s theory. Although pregnant teenagers ‘belong’ to a communal group, they still receive care. In some instances, this community takes care of pregnant teenagers. Some teenagers are not neglected the way Hardin might expect. In this township, some teenage girls ‘belong’ to, and are actively cared for by, their community.

A number of pregnant teenagers told me about the kind of care they receive from mothers, grandmothers, nurses, grandfathers, and boyfriends. Some mothers cook food for their teenage daughters. Some grandmothers monitor, and remind girls about, antenatal clinic appointments. Some nurses listen and comfort girls, sometimes for hours. Some grandfathers gossip with girls to distract them when they become the topic of social banter. Some boyfriends buy baby clothes, nappies, or food to support girlfriends.

These people cushion pregnant teenagers in a profoundly caring and supportive community. This care is intense and protective—so much so that some teenagers feel a sense of ‘belonging’ among, and connection to, the people who care for them.

There are two glaring issues here.

The first issue is the way I compare pregnant teenagers to ‘communal property.’ By applying Hardin’s theory to pregnant teenagers, I am certainly not condoning the ways some teenagers may be ‘owned’ or ‘influenced’ by those in their social world. On the contrary, I am partial to the scholarship on young women’s rights, limited agency, and their “moral ecology” in South Africa (Swartz 2009, Bray et al 2010, Vale 2015). Still, the way some pregnant teenagers are treated like ‘something’ to be owned is part of the reality in this township. Some girls are surveilled—or even manipulated—by the people in this social world. In so far as comparing pregnant teenagers to property may be quite a radical declaration, this comparison is also a painfully true one.

The second issue is that communal care is not every pregnant teenager’s reality in this township. There is extensive literature on the ways pregnant teenagers are shunned, and punished for becoming pregnant in South Africa (Ngabaza 2011, Mkwanazi 2014a, 2014b). Based on my work, I observed that many people do not take care of pregnant teenagers. Many girls face incredible adversity during pregnancy. They are constantly scolded, reprimanded, and admonished for becoming pregnant before marriage, at such a young age, and before finishing school. This is part of a pervasive, and relentless, punishing discourse that is inextricably linked to teenage pregnancy in this social world. Despite, or perhaps because of, their adversities, some pregnant teenagers receive communal care from those closest to them.

What I discuss here is in no way intended to overhaul Hardin’s theory. On the contrary, I am painfully aware that many girls must face the terrifying reality of teenage pregnancy completely alone—without communal care—despite living in a community. Yet there are some girls who can rely on the people around them. This is a particularly comforting observation that can add to what we know about teenage pregnancy in South African communities.

For some girls, teenage pregnancy is not a ‘tragedy of commons’ as much as it is an opportunity to receive communal care. In some ways, these girls ‘belong’ to all of the people who provide care during pregnancy. These people help pregnant teenagers blossom and flourish, despite their thorny situation.

Works Cited

Bray, R., Gooskens, I., Kahn, L., Moses, S., & Seekings, J. (2010). Growing up in the new South Africa: Childhood and adolescence in post-apartheid cape town. Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.

Locke, J. (1690). Second treatise of government.

Mkhwanazi, N. (2014a). “An african way of doing things”: Reproducing gender and generation. Anthropology Southern Africa, 37(1-2), 107. doi:10.1080/23323256.2014.969531

Mkhwanazi, N. (2014b). Revisiting the dynamics of early childbearing in South African townships. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(9), 1084-1096. doi:10.1080/13691058.2014.930512

Ngabaza, S. (2011). Positively pregnant: Teenage women’s experiences of negotiating pregnancy with their families. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 25(3), 42-51.

Swartz, S. (2009). Ikasi: The moral ecology of South Africa’s township youth. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Vale, B. (2015). Of blood and belonging: The practice of antiretroviral treatment among HIV-positive youth in South Africa’s eastern cape (D.phil dissertation) Available from Dissertations & Theses Europe Full Text: History. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1937379650

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s