Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy

November 19, 2013

Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy

Every day in the global south 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth. Who is She? Where is She? She’s all but 15 years old, She is the over marginalized, under represented, often excluded, minority. She is living in poverty, without access to adequate food and health services, She is taking care of her family, She has dropped out of school.  She is living in a remote community in Sierra Leone, She has dreams of becoming a doctor in her home city in Nicaragua, She wants to be a teacher in her rural village in Bangladesh.  Yet, nearly 200 of Her die every day due to pregnancy and childbirth.

“Motherhood in Childhood”

On Wednesday October 30th, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched their annual report on the State of the World’s Population.  Entitled “Motherhood in Childhood”, this year’s publication focuses on the challenges faced across the world by adolescent girls experiencing pregnancy.  Set within the broader issues of Human Rights, Reproductive Health and Gender Equality, the launch was organized by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) and was attended by, academics, civil society and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.

The introductory speech by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore framed the discussion of adolescent pregnancy within the context of Foreign Aid Development.  Highlighting the Millennium Development Goals, Tanaiste Gilmore spoke of the global efforts—and Ireland’s own contribution—to end poverty, eradicate hunger and improve maternal and child health and nutrition worldwide.  “There are no magic bullets” for addressing these issues, Tanaiste Gilmore declared.  Amidst the desperate search for solutions, there is a tendency to spiral into despair.  Yet, throughout the event’s main address given by, Dr. Mona Kaidbey, Deputy Director of UNFPA’s Technical Division, there was a whisper of hope which lingered in the air.

Eloquent and inspirational, Dr. Kaidbey gave a face to the millions of girls whose dignity she fights for, whose story she told when she stated “Who is She? Where is She? … In all her vulnerability, She requires more support, more attention and greater investment to even have a chance at realizing her dreams”.  The stories Dr. Kaidbey told were chilling, the message echoed was clear.  We cannot continue to ignore this girl.  Her right to education, Her right to health, and Her right to a future, deserve to be recognized.  It is a part of our global imperative to protect these rights and honour the potential of human capital in each and every individual.

“The Lost” Girls

In her speech, Dr. Kaidbey spoke specifically of the ‘lost girls’, a generation of adolescent girls aged 10-14 years, who have truly fallen through the cracks.  Even more so than other adolescents, this group in particular is constantly being overlooked.  They don’t seem to fit the ‘appropriate’ categories of aid and intervention.  Too old to be classified as children, too young to be targeted as adolescents in the health, education and development spheres.  Yet in countries like Bangladesh, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and Niger, one in 10 girls has a child before the age of 15.  These girls face the highest risk of developing complications throughout their pregnancies and deliveries. Within an already extremely vulnerable population, they represent the most critical age for developing interventions and targeting support strategies – yet they are too often forgotten.

Child Marriage

 According to the UNFPA there is a decline in the number of women ages 20-24 who reported births before the age of 15, between 1997 and 2011. The World Health Organization largely attributes this decline to a decrease in early arranged marriages.  “There is a dynamic relationship between adolescent pregnancy, child marriage and the large number of girls—currently 74 million—who are out of primary and secondary schools” Dr. Kaidbey said.  Considering nine out of 10 of adolescent pregnancies in lower income countries occur within marriage or a formal union, the most beneficial interventions are ones that impact at the level of communities and families to target specific social determinants that influence these cultural customs and values.  For many of these situations, it is the lack of gender equality inherent in social norms that enhance vulnerability and infringe upon the rights of young girls.  “As long as families, communities and governments tolerate child marriage, motherhood in childhood will remain an everyday occurrence in developing countries, and girls’ basic human rights will continue to be violated” Dr. Kaidbey said.

Education is Key

The situation is extremely complex and there are numerous challenges to ensuring a healthy transition from adolescence into adulthood.  From the perspective of intervention strategies, one of the largest impacts can be made through education.  By ensuring that girls remain in school and receive quality education, we are creating a future full of possibilities for individuals, families, communities and nations.  “A girl without an education is a girl who lacks the skills to find a job and build a future for herself and her family and to contribute to her nation’s development” Dr. Kaidbey stated emphatically.  Providing incentives to families and communities that will encourage girls to stay in school is just one solution.  For example, just by providing free school uniforms, a study done in Kenya showed the dropout rate amongst girls decreased by 15 per cent.

In keeping with the impetus of the day’s events, Tanaiste Gilmore’s and Dr. Kaidbey’s addresses, and the UNFPA State of the World’s Population Report, there is tribute to be paid for the monumental challenges experienced by tens of thousands of young girls each and every day.  Their struggles should not be silenced, their voices should not be drowned out, and their experiences should not be unknown.  For the benefit of every one of these girls and their families, it is time we acknowledge the severity of these situations and work together to give back Her voice, empower Her choice, and reclaim Her dignity.

Bianca van Bavel

[email protected]




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