SEATTLE — Twenty-thousand girls under the age of eighteen give birth every day in developing countries, and complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19. Half of these pregnancies are unintended and result from lack of access to reproductive health education, child marriage, sexual violence and low levels of education.
Education is key to disrupting this dangerous global phenomenon. Research studies have found that one of the best ways to decrease teen pregnancy is by increasing the female literacy rate, which increases the use of contraception and allows girls to understand sex education resources. Girls who have received a high amount of education are five times less likely to become pregnant and educated girls enter into child marriages less often and are more likely to have healthy future pregnancies.
School provides the perfect environment to combat teen pregnancy. Interventions within the school system during primary school allow sex education to occur before puberty and before the age at which many girls drop out of the educational system. At school, students spend a lot of their time with trusted teachers in a regulated and supportive learning environment. Reproductive health programming is easily built into existing curriculum structures, and schools function as social centers trusted by the entire community, enabling them to build bridges to family members and health centers.
Unfortunately, sex education isn’t prevalent enough in developing countries for primary school educational interventions to prevent teen pregnancy. Cultural myths and religious stigma often prevent schools from providing adequate sex education and pregnant girls are often banned from attending school because they are “bad omens.” Marginalized and often cast out of their homes, pregnant teenagers have few resources and end up living in poverty.
Developing countries differ from the United States in their educational resources for teen mothers. In South Africa, young mothers who wish to go back to school have to return to the school they dropped out from and are rarely provided with counseling. Unable to avoid social marginalization by enrolling in a new school or a school specifically for teen mothers, girls struggle with isolation and bullying. Teachers are often uncompromising on missed classes due to a baby’s illness and few administrative structures and training are available to support teen mothers.
Yet every additional year of schooling that a girl receives results in a 10-20 percent increase in her wages and a child mortality rate that is reduced by 2 percent. For the adolescent mother and her child, the return to school after pregnancy is absolutely necessary for a better life. Greater structural support within schools, cultural programs challenging stigmas around teen motherhood and schools designed specifically for teen mothers can help girls return to their education after pregnancy and childbirth.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is working with various governments in developing countries to reach adolescent girls to help them get back into schools and prevent future unintended pregnancies. Empowering young women who are teen mothers themselves to lead training and counseling sessions, UNFPA creates safe spaces for girls to learn about sexual and reproductive health. Mentorship and home visits help girls return to school and support them with literacy and financial skills.
Girls unable to attend school due to distance, cultural barriers or poverty must not be forgotten. For them, reproductive health education can happen through mentorship programs and health facility visits. UNFPA health workers educate girls who visit health facilities on the importance of contraception and family planning, providing resources to help girls find employment. Community outreach sessions conducted by health workers and district leaders can also help improve girls’ reproductive health and safety. Those living in rural areas often receive much less information about family planning, and these outreach sessions promoted by door-to-door advertising can reduce teen pregnancy and improve maternal health.
My Question and Answer is another sexual and reproductive health service for teens that allows adolescents to text, call, email or access a website with any questions about sexual and reproductive health or HIV/AIDS. Run by Education as a Vaccine in Nigeria, many teenagers say that My Q&A is their preferred method of receiving information about sexual and reproductive health because it is confidential and anonymous. Whether girls are in school or out of school, My Q&A is a resource to help them make informed decisions about their reproductive choices.
For girls everywhere, education about sex and reproductive health needs to happen. Young girls deserve access to information that allows them to make educated, safe decisions about their bodies. Education, either in schools or outside of them, must be supported in developing countries to end unintended teen pregnancy.
– Irena Huang