UNITED NATIONS, New York — Nearly a third of women in developing countries had their first baby when they were still teenagers, according to a recently released report, nearly half of these new mothers aged 17 and less — still children themselves.
Gender and income-based inequalities are seen as key to fueling teenage pregnancies by increasing early marriage rates, keeping girls out of school, limiting their career aspirations, and limiting health care and information about safe and consensual sex.
These inequalities are rooted in climate disasters, COVID-19 and conflict, all of which are disrupting lives around the world, wiping out livelihoods and making it harder for girls to afford or even physically access services. education and health. This leaves tens of millions of people even more vulnerable to child marriage and early pregnancy.
“While nearly a third of all women in developing countries become mothers during adolescence, it is clear that the world is failing adolescent girls,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “The repeat pregnancies we see among teenage mothers are a clear sign that they are in desperate need of sexual and reproductive health information and services.”
Teenage motherhood does not involve unwanted pregnancies
Most births to girls under 18 in 54 developing countries are reported as taking place within marriage or union. Although more than half of these pregnancies were classified as “intended”, young girls’ ability to decide whether or not to have children can be severely limited. Indeed, the report finds that teenage pregnancy is often – but not always – driven by a lack of meaningful choice, limited power, and even force or coercion.
Even in settings where adolescent motherhood is seen as acceptable and planned, it can have serious and long-term repercussions, particularly when health-care systems fail to ensure accessible sexual and reproductive care and information. to this vulnerable age group.
Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19, who are also much more likely to experience a litany of other human rights violations, forced marriage and domestic violence to the serious mental health effects of bearing children before they themselves are out of childhood.
Girls who give birth as teenagers often have more than one baby in quick succession, which can be dangerous both physically and psychologically. Among those who gave birth for the first time at age 14 or younger, almost three quarters had a second baby before they were 20, and 40% of them had a third before leaving adolescence.
What keeps infant pregnancy rates so high?
Teenage births now account for 16% of all births globally, and the report shows that women who started having children as teenagers had almost five births when they reached the age of 40 years. With inequalities and humanitarian crises multiplying and intensifying, we know that women and girls bear the unequal burden of the resulting physical, psychological and economic hardship.
In both conflict and climate-related disasters, schools and health facilities are often reduced to rubble and devoid of staff and equipment. Insecurity and violence prevent people from moving even for basic needs, including contraception and other essential sexual and reproductive health care.
Crises and displacement are also known to lead to spikes in gender-based and sexual violence, in turn causing more sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies due to rape, and rising rates of forced and child marriages as parents struggle to cope with financial hardship and painful hunger. . Under these circumstances, access to employment, education and health services is disrupted or entirely suspended, pushing girls out of school, women out of the labor market and causing marriages to skyrocket. children and unwanted pregnancies.
Yet these trends are not new: research shows that despite some progress, over the past 60 years the proportion of first births to girls aged 17 and under has only declined from 60 to 45%, a decrease of about 2%. points every 10 years.
Increase the value of girls by investing in their future
The report calls for increased support for comprehensive sexual and reproductive care as well as a commitment to girls’ potential for education and employment. This is particularly urgent for people living in vulnerable and low-income contexts, where the number of teenage mothers is highest.
“Governments must invest in adolescent girls and expand their opportunities, resources and skills, thereby helping to prevent early and unwanted pregnancies,” Dr Kanem added. “When girls are able to meaningfully chart their own life course, motherhood in childhood will become increasingly rare.”
Initiatives to keep girls in school, alongside comprehensive sex education and life skills training, have proven effective in empowering them to make their own choices. This will help them navigate their way out of poverty and into a better future, a future in which they will only choose to enter motherhood when they decide they are ready, able and willing to do so.
**Names have been changed for privacy and protection*