By Felister Makandi
Earlier this month the world marked World Population Day with the theme “Focusing on Adolescent Pregnancy”. With the alarming statistics on adolescent pregnancy, this year’s theme could not have come at a better time. Every year, 16 million girls under the age of 18 are pregnant. Of these, 3.2 million undergo unsafe abortion. Adolescent pregnancies are associated with a wide range of health problems. Young women’s bodies are not well prepared for the biological pressure that comes with child bearing. In light of this, there is need for a paradigm shift. Most of the time, mitigation against adolescent pregnancy is superficial and aimed at controlling the situation. It is high time we started addressing the causes and contributing factors to adolescent pregnancy.
Child, early and forced marriages are one of the contributing factors to increased rates of adolescent pregnancy. This is because this harmful practice is informed and perpetuated by cultural norms, but also because laws and policies banning early marriage are not well implemented where they exist, or clash with customary laws. At times, those laws and policies don’t exist. Most young girls from middle and poor income countries are under pressure to marry and bear children due to cultural norms and practices – and at times due to the economic strain on their families. When girls get married early, they are at much higher risk of becoming pregnant early, often forcing them to drop out of school. Dropping out of school denies them education and further opportunities. They are often economically dependent making them vulnerable to all forms of gender based violence. To add insult to injury, most of these young girls do not know their rights or have little access to mechanisms for recourse.
Education is a vital component in addressing adolescent pregnancies because availability or lack of it presents different impacts in the situation. Comprehensive sexuality education needs to be a vital part of education, informing girls and boys of their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and also including a component of gender equality. It is important to ensure young people engage or don’t engage in sex with full knowledge of the choices they make and consequences that may result. Education delays marriage which means in many cases a delay in pregnancy. Mothers who are educated understand the meaning of full access and full choice more than their non-literate counterparts. They have access to sexual and reproductive health information and they can make informed choices about if and when they want to give birth; how many children they want and have a plan of sustaining their young ones.
Early pregnancy is perceived as a bad thing that is why the statistics on unsafe abortion are astounding. Unsafe abortions contribute largely to maternal mortality and infertility among young women and it is not the only thing to worry about; because adolescent pregnancies speak volumes about unprotected sex which sometimes is concensual and in other cases forced, which is a recipe for acquiring sexual transmitted diseases.
Addressing adolescent pregnancy is a matter of urgency. Prioritizing health funds to address the causes is something every government must do because adolescent pregnancy is not just a health issue, but a development issue that contributes to: poverty, gender inequality, violence, forced marriage and power imbalances between boy and girls.
Felister Makandi is an Intern at the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET). You can connect with her on twitter @makandigitonga and email email@example.com