Featured Organizations, Maternal and Newborn Health

Why We Can’t Ignore Adolescent Mothers

This post was authored by Sofia Mussa and Malwina Maslowska of WomenOne on behalf of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls. 

Worldwide, an estimated 32 million adolescent girls are out of school. Barriers to secondary education disproportionately affect girls and include poverty, gender-based violence, child marriage, and pregnancy. WomenOne, along with members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls (CAG), is dedicated to identifying the most hard-to-reach populations of girls and developing programs to ensure that no girl is denied her right to education.

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), adolescent pregnancy is a major obstacle to girls’ education. Over half of all births in SSA are to adolescent girls aged 15-19. Additionally, government policies prevent many girls from staying in school while pregnant and continuing their education after delivery. In Sierra Leone, where nearly half of all girls become pregnant during adolescence, visibly pregnant girls and young mothers are prohibited from attending school and taking exams. National policies in Uganda allow schools to expel pregnant students despite laws aiming to achieve gender equality in education, and girls in Tanzania are routinely subjected to invasive pregnancy testing procedures that are used as grounds for expulsion.

Key actors must do more to ensure pregnant and mothering adolescent girls have access to education. Although Kenya and South Africa have policies ensuring girls are able to re-enroll in school after dropping out due to pregnancy, they are not enforced consistently. Community members often discriminate against adolescent mothers, suggesting they are a bad influence. In other cases, girls cannot re-enroll due to school fees and limited childcare options. In South Africa, where about 1 in 4 girls have given birth by age 19, many schools are not equipped to address the needs of adolescent mothers.

WomenOne’s research supports growing evidence that adolescent pregnancy is associated with low levels of educational attainment in Kenya and South Africa. Adolescent mothers interviewed in Kenya and South Africa overwhelmingly cited financial insecurity and early pregnancy as the main reasons they left school, with over half reporting pregnancy as the reason they dropped out. In Kenya, 40% of girls reported dropping out due to school fees, compared to 11% in South Africa.

So what prevents adolescent out-of-school mothers from returning to school? Barriers include lack of childcare, inadequate postnatal, maternal and child health care, and stigma from school officials and peers. Although financial support is critical to re-enrollment, emotional, psychosocial, and familial support can be just as crucial. When asked what she needed to return to school, a South African girl replied, “a uniform and someone who can take care of my baby.” Another adolescent mother from South Africa stated,

“Basically [you need] support and someone who is always there…A person who can help you with your homework and where you can speak and feel comfortable to talk about anything that’s bothering you.”

Though attitudes vary across countries and contexts, the stigma of adolescent pregnancy often prevents girls from accessing the few health or educational services available. Fear of health workers, educators, or peers isolates girls when they are most in need of their community, but youth-friendly services can be a simple solution. Health workers should be trained to communicate with young mothers and other vulnerable girls at local clinics. Establishing safe spaces, where girls can express themselves freely, is another option, as well as ensuring girls have the legal right to remain in school while pregnant

Addressing the needs of pregnant and mothering girls is vital to reducing the long-term intergenerational effects of the cycle of poverty. Girls that become pregnant before age 18 are more likely to be poor, uneducated, affected by violence, and impacted by maternal and child health complications. These consequences are enduring, as children of adolescent mothers are more likely to experience the same challenges. Adolescent mothers in Kenya and South Africa expressed desire for services to mitigate some of these challenges, including vocational training, formal educational, peer mentorship, health education, and clinical services. These programs could be strengthened by community outreach to combat stigma and ensure governmental policies are implemented. Taken together, these approaches can help break the cycle of poverty and guarantee a better future for women and girls worldwide.