Today, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched its State of the World Population 2013 report, “Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy,” at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The 2013 report focuses on the disproportionate burden of adolescent pregnancies experienced by less-educated, rural and impoverished girls.
Everyday 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth, and 95 percent of these pregnancies occur in the developing world. For these young women, the results can be devastating. They not only face increased risk of maternal death and other pregnancy complications, but are less likely to remain in school, which can limit their economic and other opportunities.
The Wilson Center event brought together key stakeholders to discuss how governments, NGOs, and private sector actors can embrace a multi-sectoral and holistic approach to address the underlying causes of adolescent pregnancy. An overarching theme of the discussion was the need to start confronting broader forces at play that put poor, uneducated and rural young women at risk. Preventing adolescent pregnancy should not begin and end with seeking to alter the behavior of young women and girls.
“Adolescent pregnancy is a manifestation of inequity.” – Dianne Stewart, UNFPA
As Dianne Stewart, Director of the Information and External Relations Division of UNFPA noted, this report aims to “provoke a new way of thinking about adolescent pregnancy.” Family, community, and national-level programs and policies must examine the underlying factors that allow for high rates of adolescent pregnancy seen around the world. These include child marriage, gender inequality, poverty, sexual violence and coercion, and lack of access to education and reproductive health services.
Of married adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa, 26 percent want to avoid pregnancy, but are not accessing modern contraceptives. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the unmet need for family planning among married girls is 37 percent. Yet, many national policies prohibit access to sexual and reproductive health care by age. This limits the options for these girls to access the contraception they desire. The impacts of this extend beyond each individual girl. Stewart highlighted the significant economic impact– in Uganda, where one third of women reported having a child before age 18, the estimated GDP loss due to adolescent pregnancy is 30 percent.
“Abstinence and contraception [use] are predicated on the notion of agency.” – Dr. Robert Blum, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
One critical factor that inhibits girls’ ability to negotiate sexual activity and access reproductive health information and service is agency – the idea that they are able to make their own choices. The report and discussion both emphasized that structural forces and social norms leave girls around the world disempowered. If girls are empowered, they can better make decisions about their own lives and their own fertility. Despite the challenges in empowering girls and reducing gender inequality, countries must make strides on these underlying causes in order to affect adolescent pregnancy rates. Beverly Johnston, the Division Chief for Policy, Evaluation and Communication at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), spoke about USAID’s agency-wide shift toward focusing on the assets adolescents have rather than just the problems they face. Effective interventions on contraceptive access and comprehensive sexuality education must be integrated into broader efforts to support youth in many aspects of their lives.
Meeting the needs of adolescent girls is critical to our work here at PAI. The UNFPA State of the World Population report and today’s launch event reaffirmed the necessity to continue to address the needs of youth as we work to close the gap on the 222 million women with an unmet need for family planning.
The evidence presented today only makes it clearer: pregnant girls in Nigeria are being expelled from school, 2.5 million unsafe abortions occur among adolescent women each year, and 70,000 girls in developing countries die every year from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes.
Adolescent sexual health and rights must become a priority. Girls around the world deserve to have their reproductive rights respected and the opportunity to live to their full potential.