Babies having babies: Teenage pregnancy

Teenage pregnancy is never glamorous, and especially not when you’re lying, nauseous and alone, in a mud hut with flies buzzing around you. For the 20,000 girls under the age of 18 who give birth in developing, low-income countries annually, childbirth is dangerous and stressful. In South Africa, nearly one-third of all adolescent girls fall pregnant – a clear sign that something is horribly wrong.

Adolescent pregnancy is driven up by gender violence, poor sex education, transactional sex practices, and female sexual repression. In Sierra Leone, where the economy was ravaged by the Ebola epidemic, girls are under enormous pressure to have sex for money. Eighteen-year-old Marie Koroma fell pregnant after having transactional sex with a man twice her age. He abandoned her upon discovering her pregnancy, leaving her to fend for herself and her unborn child alone. Other girls are raped or denied proper sexual contraceptives and education at hospitals, due to an overwhelming belief that “boys will be boys” and girls should not give in to them and be sexually active.

When girls fall pregnant at a young age, they suffer lifelong consequences. Additionally, the elevated risks of falling pregnant before becoming fully physically developed drives up maternal mortality rates. Every year, there are 70,000 adolescent maternal deaths and almost all of them are entirely preventable (WHO). High blood pressure in pregnant teens also contributes to preeclampsia, which harms both mother and infant. Babies born to teenage mothers are at higher risk of low birth weight, making it difficult for the fetus to survive outside of the womb without ICU care. Adolescents are not as mindful of their health as older women are, and will not pay as much attention to physical symptoms of any pregnancy complications.

Another enormous issue with teenage pregnancy is that it takes girls out of schools. Education is vital toward decreasing fertility rates and empowering girls and women. However, in Sierra Leone, pregnant students are not being allowed to take their primary and secondary exams. This essentially robs them of their right to graduate. Established by the Education Minister Minkailu Bah, the new mandate stems from a long-standing, unspoken cultural belief: if you have sex and fall pregnant, you are unfit to associate with your classmates who are not pregnant and therefore more “virtuous”.

Forbidding pregnant girls from attending school, however, violates the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Created as an international bill of rights for all females, CEDAW is the only human rights treaty that protects the reproductive rights of women and tries to overcome cultural beliefs that perpetuate harmful gender roles. Denying pregnant girls from attending classes is tantamount to denying their right to education – it is a violation of human rights. Safeguarding girls’ educations can delay pregnancy, reduce family size, and help girls realize their own autonomy.

Young women in developing countries, trapped in rural and impoverished areas, experience extremely high rates of pregnancy because they are not given the tools to sexually educate themselves or support themselves without men. Gender disparities between girls and boys disadvantage girls at every turn; girls carry the unjust burden of enduring pregnancy with no emotional or physical support from their male partners. Teenage pregnancy is an enormous issue that robs girls of their futures and physical health.


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