Young people are supposed to enjoy their teenage years—finishing their studies, going out with friends, having their first crush, or figuring out what they want to do with their lives. But this is not the reality for many teen girls because they get pregnant at such an early age. Teenage pregnancy can change the course of a young mom’s life, putting her in a place where she’s responsible not only for herself but also for another human being.
Teenage pregnancy, also widely known as adolescent pregnancy, occurs in teen girls between the ages of 13 to 19 years. It has remained a major contributor to maternal and child mortality across the world. Previous reports showed that complications in pregnancy and childbirth are considered the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide. Pregnant teens also face other complications and risks due to their immature bodies.
Teen girls’ physical health is not only at risk but also their mental health. According to Healthline, an American website and provider of health information headquartered in San Francisco, CA, a study published in the journal Pediatrics discovered that girls aged 15 to 19 experienced postpartum depression at a rate that was twice as high as women aged 25 and older. Another study showed that teen mothers face significant levels of stress that can lead to increased mental health concerns. They also have higher rates of suicidal ideation than their peers who aren’t mothers.
Aside from the physical and mental health aspects, teenage pregnancy also has negative social and economic impacts on girls, their families, and communities. Previous reports proved that unmarried pregnant adolescents may face stigma or rejection by parents and peers as well as threats of violence. Teenage moms are more likely to experience violence within a marriage or partnership.
Early pregnancy has also great impacts on the child. Some effects to a child of a teenage mother include greater risk for lower birth weight and infant mortality, being more likely to be unemployed or underemployed as a young adult, more likely to drop out of high school, and relying more heavily on publicly funded healthcare. Thus, teenage pregnancy must be discussed in a way that will not further stigmatize these young mothers but instead, help more people to understand the issue.
Teenage Pregnancy in Numbers
A study titled “Teenage Pregnancies: A Worldwide Social and Medical Problem” showed that teenage pregnancies are nothing new. Historically, adolescent pregnancies and teenage motherhood were considered as normal. They were also often socially accepted in previous centuries and even as late as during the 20th century in Europe. According to Intech Open, a leading global publisher of journals and books within the fields of science, technology, and medicine, it was common for girls to get married during adolescence and give birth during their second decade of life. Thus, it’s not surprising that it is still well-practiced even in this modern age.
Millions of girls are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Sexual education has become a taboo in some countries, preventing many teens to learn more about their bodies. This increases the risk for teenage pregnancy when girls are prevented to make their own decisions about their bodies and future.
The World Health Organization reported that an estimated 21 million girls aged 15 to 19 in developing regions become pregnant and approximately 12 million of them give birth annually. Of this number, at least 770,000 births occur to adolescent girls younger than 15 in developing countries. While teenage pregnancies are a global problem occurring in high-, middle-, and low-income countries, reports show that adolescent pregnancies are more likely to occur in marginalized communities. This is mainly due to poverty and lack of education and employment opportunities.
According to The New Times, a registered Rwandan private media outlet, teen pregnancies in the country increased to 15,696 from January to August 2019, which translates to an average of 1,962 a month. Based on this data, an estimated 23,544 children were born to teen mothers last year in Rwanda. Girls in many countries are under pressure to marry and rear children early. At least 39% of girls in the least developed nations marry before they are 18 years of age and 12% before the age of 15.
Social and Economic Implications
In many countries, marriage and childbearing are often seen as the best options for girls. Many teens also face other concerns including restrictive laws and policies regarding the provision of contraceptive based on age or marital status; their own inability to access contraceptives because of knowledge, transportation, and financial constraints; and health worker bias and/or lack of willingness to acknowledge adolescents’ sexual health needs.
Reports show that 90% of births to girls aged 15 to 19 in developing countries occur when there is often an imbalance of power, no access to contraception, and pressure on girls to prove their fertility. Teen pregnancy and childbearing bring substantial social and economic costs. For instance, early pregnancy and birth are significant factors in high school dropout rates among girls. Of the teen mothers, only 50% of them graduate in high school compared to 90% of women who receive a high school diploma by 22 years of age.
The good news is that there has been a decline in worldwide teenage pregnancy for the past several years. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in America, teen birth rates declined from 2016 to 2017 for most racial groups and Hispanics. The rates among teens aged 15 to 19 decreased by 15% for non-Hispanic Asians, 9% for Hispanics, 8% for non-Hispanic Whites, 6% for non-Hispanic Blacks, and 6% for American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN).
Aflodis Kagaba, the executive director of the Health Development Initiative (HDI), a healthcare advocacy organization in Rwanda, stated that the best solution for this is to equip teens with the contraception methods should they choose to be sexually active. “Evidence indicates that teenagers are sexually active. We need to ensure that they can access those services so that we don’t have a scenario where a 14-year-old mother is getting pregnant again because of unnecessary legal barriers,” he said.
Francisca Mujawase, a statistician and a member of the taskforce that drives the statistics agenda in Rwanda to promote data availability and utilization for evidence-based national planning and budgeting policy decision-making, added that the best immediate solution would be availing and ensuring access to contraceptive services for teens.
“Whether you like it or not, and regardless of the effort that you put in abstinence, teenagers will still have sex. When I do these studies and I find out that, for example, one district has teen mothers that are above the population growth rate, then it is a problem,” she said.
As stated, teen pregnancy is a worldwide health and economic issue that governments should also prioritize.