Adolescent pregnancy - whose failing is that?

Date: 31/10/2013

A serious review of how girls and boys are socialized is one of the basic steps that we as society must take towards a new culture of mutual respect.

The tendency of society to blame girls and young women who find themselves pregnant too young, while still in school or unmarried is also misplaced, and thus the many attempts to address behaviour change in adolescent girls particularly is rather misplaced.

For it is a combination of circumstances that create situations which adolescent girls, for the most part, have no right or even opportunity to argue their way out of. Say for instance, certain cultural practices that allow girls as young as 9 to be married: by 14, the girl-child is having children. The impact on her health can be crippling and when this is multiplied at a national level, our progress as a people and as countries are curtailed.

Alena Loata 18, with her 7-month-old baby in Lautoka, Fiji. Alena agreed to share her experience with us; this will feature on Sunday, in the Kaila! Magazine of The Sunday Times. Photo: UNFPA PSRO/Ariela Zibiah

As long as girls are not considered equal partners in humanity, expected progress from national development plans or as basic as a family or village units, will not manifest because half of that family, village or nation, are not allowed to participate fully in such plans.

Studies have repeatedly proven that when girls are educated and given the opportunity to reach their full potential, they reinvest in their families, they are more likely to marry later and when they are financially secure in their own right. No girl-child would chose motherhood when she knows that to complete an education increased her prospects of higher education and employment. Neither should she be forced into it.

Adolescent pregnancy is not just choices being stripped off young girls and young women, it is very much about all of us tolerating circumstances which continue to place girls and young women in disadvantageous positions. It is about all of us perpetuating practices which entrenches the bias towards boys or young men.

Messages in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2013 State of World Population report "Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy" highlight the need to change the perceptions of behaviour and responsibility boys and men have, particularly in terms of adolescent pregnancy.

The report which will have a Pacific launch on November 1 in Fiji speaks to the potential consequences on national economies of non-action or our failure to address adolescent pregnancy. The economic impact of adolescent pregnancy can be enormous. In a large economy like China, the lifetime opportunity cost related to adolescent pregnancy equals an estimated 1 per cent of annual GDP, or $124 billion [GDP, PPP, World Bank data]. Even in a smaller economy, the costs can amount to as much as 30 per cent of GDP.

"In my country, we have a saying that you cannot run on one leg," UNFPA Executive Director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin said at the global launch of the report in London on October 30.

"That's a lesson for every country: by empowering girls, protecting their rights and helping them prevent pregnancy, we can make it possible for girls to realize their potential, to become equal partners in development. And with girls and boys on an equal footing, all our countries may run with both legs."

A Pacific region supplementary report to the global report on adolescent pregnancy will also be launched on Friday morning in Suva (November 1). Entitled i am not a lost cause: Young Women's Empowerment and Teenage Pregnancy in the Pacific says adolescent fertility rate, or the number of births to women between 15 and 19 years per 1000 women between 15 and 19 years, is still very high in some countries at more than 50, compared to global trends which for example, is 7 in France, 13 in Australia and 9 in Finland.

The report I am not a lost cause discusses the link between high adolescent fertility rate and violence against women and girls. For first sexual experience, the younger the women are, the more chances that it is forced, the report says from studies in Pacific countries. It is important that the link between violence against women and adolescent pregnancy are acknowledged.

"It's time to step up and change the face of adolescent pregnancy," UNFPA Deputy Executive Director Kate Gilmore said.

"Motherhood in childhood comes to the girl through violence and deprivation of choices. The girl herself is not the problem, evidence is clear: most often the pregnancy has nothing to do with her choices.

"We have to provide girls with services that welcome them and not stigmatize them. Motherhood in childhood - whose failing is that?.

A teenage mum who shared her story with us for an article on the impact of adolescent pregnancy breastfeeds her baby at their village home in the Western Division. Photo: UNFPA PSRO/Ariela Zibiah