Globally, teenage pregnancies are on the decline, according to a recent UN report. Knowledge of contraception, abstinence and safe sex has no doubt had an effect on these numbers, with only 5% of teenage pregnancies occurring in developed, higher-educated countries. Unfortunately, although the general trend shows a decrease in teenage pregnancies, countries in West Africa, Latin America and South Asia have seen an increase in the number of teen mothers. One may be inclined to think that since the populations of these countries are increasing, a simultaneous increase in teen pregnancies is inevitable. However, even when considering relative percentages the results are still quite shocking. Countries such as Niger, which has 51% of reported births from mothers under 18, will continue to see a large portion of their young population unable to work, and unable to pursue further education; a social problem that has severe economic consequences.
Traditionally these problems have been seen both as a symptom of a lack of knowledge about contraception, and an inability for young women to access the family-planning resources needed to prevent pregnancy. Although this is undoubtedly a problem in many countries, it is not the only factor at play. Cultural traditions and religious practices that encourage men to marry underage brides, in addition to the social pressure for young married teens to have children are also a significant impediment to the lowering of these rates. These culturally engrained practices cannot be solved merely by traditional sex-ed. Framing the issue of teenage pregnancy as purely a problem of sexual education has distracted us from the conversation on gender equality and female empowerment. While it is important to approach these cultural differences with sensitivity, to ignore the impact that practices such as child marriages have on the futures of young women is to be willfully ignorant.
Education on feminism and the basics of gender equality is just as important as the distribution of contraceptive devices. Breaking down traditional gender roles is essential to maximizing the potential of these new generations. With significant progress having been made in the last 20 years with regard to the accessibility of education in countries such as India, it is an unfortunate waste to see girls taken out of schools to look after their children- especially when an education can mean the difference between poverty and relative comfort.
When discussing the effect of pregnancy within forced underage marriages in India, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund said: “For these very young adolescents who do not have a say in whether or when they will become pregnant, their futures are destroyed, and their basic human rights are violated.”
In some instances NGO’s and government programs have focused on encouraging girls to pursue education and career training, a strategy that has lead to success in reducing the number of pregnancies. An example of this is the Mayan ethnic group in Guatemala, who have instituted programs to teach young girls leadership skills. As a result they have seen their teen pregnancy rates dip much below the country’s national average. The benefit of empowerment strategies such as the one currently used in Guatemala is that they go beyond simply reducing the likelihood of pregnancy. They additionally serve to equip young women with the tools they need in order to become successful economic contributors; something which not only improves the quality of life for the girls involved in the program, but also assists in the betterment of society as a whole. One can only hope that these small success stories will serve as a catalyst for further action, encouraging the integration of such programs into the socio-economic strategies of private and public organizations alike.