Today, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released its State of the World Population 2013 report under the title “Motherhood in Childhood – Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy”. The comprehensive report addresses the important issue of pregnancy in adolescence, which is often the result of multiple factors including poverty, gender-based discrimination, violence against girls, inability to keep girls in school and child marriage.
In developing countries, 20,000 girls under 18 give birth every day – but adolescent pregnancy is a problem in developed countries too. According to the report, there are 680,000 births to adolescent mothers in developed countries every year. Nearly half of them occur in the United States, where family planning and sexual and reproductive services have been the target of much heated debate.
Adolescent pregnancy carries negative consequences to girls’ lives and future prospects. Girls who become mothers at a young age often see their education interrupted or totally halted, have harder time finding meaningful job opportunities, and particularly in the context of low- and middle income countries often face long term health consequences such as fistula. Risk of maternal death is notably higher for younger girls than older women – in developing countries, an estimated 70,000 adolescents die each year as a result of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and account for as many as 3.2 million unsafe abortions annually.
One of the most important messages in the report is that interventions aimed at decreasing adolescent pregnancies must move away from seeing the girl as the cause and blame of the issue. Instead they should focus more on the underlying structural and societal causes that leave girls vulnerable and powerless, and place them at a higher risk of becoming pregnant. Adolescent pregnancy is often not a result of choice, but lack there of – young girls get pregnant because their rights to education, protection, family planning, sexual and reproductive health services, information and self-determination are violated. As UNFPA notes, adolescent pregnancy is both a cause and consequence of violation of girls’ rights as citizens, as individuals, as females – and as children. Adolescent girls get pregnant because systems, institutions, governments and legislations have failed to protect them, and the focus of changing the situation must be in fixing those structural failures, not placing the blame on girls.
This year, the theme of the International Day of the Girl Child was Innovating Girls’ Education, and UNFPA’s State of the World Population Report also highlights the importance of girls’ education in decreasing and preventing adolescent pregnancy. Schools can offer safe and protective environments for girls, prepare them for adulthood by equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to remain in control over their own lives, and provide them with crucial sexual and reproductive health education for avoiding unwanted pregnancies. Education also decreases the risk of child marriage, which can often be the cause behind unwanted pregnancies in adolescence. Education alone is not enough, but it is a huge part of the puzzle. The report calls for a more holistic approach to tackling unintended pregnancy in adolescence through stronger partnerships across sectors, and most importantly in collaboration with adolescents themselves – both girls and boys.
Let’s let girls be girls and finish childhood before becoming mothers, and ensure that our societies provide them with the opportunity to choose when and with whom to start a family, how many children to have, and how to space them. Motherhood should always be a choice, and never the result of poverty, coercion, violence or misinformation. We cannot expect to see sustainable development and progress when millions of girls cannot reach their full potential because of early, unintended and unsafe pregnancies. There are 580 million adolescent girls in the world, and we cannot afford to lose any of them to preventable maternal deaths, or waste their potential because we as individuals, communities and governments failed to protect them and their rights. By investing in adolescent girls, we are investing in a better future for the entire humanity. That seems like an investment worth making.
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- UNFPA: State of the World Population Report 2013
- Ten facts about adolescent pregnancy
- State of the World Population Report 2013 – Press Summary
- UNFPA Featured Story: Using Social Media to Empower Madagascar’s Youth
All images courtesy of UNFPA.
Featured image: Sixteen-year-old Usha Yadab, class leader for Choose Your Future, a UNFPA-supported programme in Nepal that teaches girls about health issues and encourages the development of basic life skills. © UNFPA/William Ryan