By Babatunde Osotimehin
November 13, 2013
“I was 16 and never missed a day of school. I dreamt of going to college and then getting a good job so that I could take my parents away from the dingy house we lived in. Then one day, I was told that I had to leave it all as my parents bartered me for a girl my elder brother was to marry. I was sad and angry. I pleaded with my mother, but my father had made up his mind. My only hope was that my husband would let me complete my studies. But he got me pregnant even before I turned 17. Since then I have hardly even been allowed to step out of the house. Sometimes when the others are not at home, I read my old school books, and hold my baby and cry. She is such an adorable little girl, but I am blamed for not having a son”: Komal
Komal is now 18 years old, and her story of a lost childhood is, unfortunately, all too common, not just in India, but in many parts of the world. As the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) recently released ‘The State of World Population 2013: Motherhood in Childhood’ report says, “When a girl becomes pregnant, her present and future change radically, and rarely for the better.”
This is true everywhere, but the problem is most acute in the developing world, where 88% of all adolescents live.
Every day, 20,000 girls below the age of 18 give birth in these developing nations.
Far too many girls get married at very young ages and have a child before they are physically and emotionally ready to be mothers. According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-2006, nearly half of young women aged 20 to 24 were married, and more than one in five had a child, before they turned 18.
Four million girls aged 15-19 give birth each year. The UNFPA’s latest research confirms that complications from pregnancy and childbirth take the lives of some 70,000 adolescent girls each year. These statistics are particularly tragic because so many of these deaths are preventable.
In a world confronting so many problems, from natural disasters to armed conflicts to climate change, there is a natural inclination to say, ‘teen pregnancy is a terrible problem, but we have other priorities we need to address.’ And that would be a mistake, because adolescent pregnancy is a problem that affects us all.
More than 7 billion of us now share a fragile ecosystem that provides inadequate food, water, shelter and sanitation to a sizeable and growing percentage of the human population. And in many cases, population is growing fastest among groups that have the least access to resources or in regions with the fewest resources.
Teen pregnancies are contributing to that population growth and damaging the economic potential of many nations in the developing world.
If all adolescent girls in India were able to wait until their early 20s before having a child, complete secondary school and find jobs, they could raise the country’s economic productivity by $7.7 billion. And because developing nations are vital to the growth of the overall global economy, issues that handicap that growth hurt us all.
Adolescent pregnancy may pose special challenges to the developing nations, but it is problem for developed nations as well. There are approximately 6, 80,000 births to adolescent mothers in developed countries annually, with nearly half of those occurring in the US, costing billions of dollars every year in increased healthcare expenses.
In India, child marriage is the key driver of adolescent pregnancy. With the highest number of child brides in the world, the lost potential of millions of girls, and the social and economic consequences of child marriage are a huge cost.
Education is a strong prophylactic against teen pregnancy and thus we must find ways to keep girls in school. We also need to dramatically increase adolescents’ access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health information and to contraceptive products.
And we need to provide better support for adolescent mothers. It is within our power to significantly reduce the incidence of adolescent pregnancy, and it is in our collective best interest to do it.
Babatunde Osotimehin is under-secretary-general, the United Nations, and executive director, the United Nations Population Fund