In developed countries, rates of adolescent pregnancy are typically low. But globally, we still see an estimated twelve million live births annually to girls aged 15 to 19. More than three-quarters of a million girls under age 15 also give birth.
Adolescent pregnancy is a leading cause of death for girls under age twenty. Adolescent girls who become pregnant are at high risk of complications during their pregnancy and during childbirth.
Even if they don’t die, they may be left with chronic health issues. Additionally, having a baby so young is typically stigmatizing and interferes with the ability to pursue an education and a career, thus trapping millions of girls in poverty for the rest of their lives.
Adolescent pregnancies are often not planned. They are frequently unintended and unwanted, not some happy little accident. At least 10 million adolescent pregnancies each year are unintended.
Because they are often unwanted, there are an estimated 5.6 million abortions in this age group in developing countries. Most of them (3.9 million) are unsafe, often not performed by a licensed medical professional in a proper medical setting. This is part of why so many girls die as a result of pregnancy or are permanently impaired with lasting health issues.
Girls between the ages of 10 and 19 who become pregnant are at increased risk for eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections. If they do successfully give birth, the baby is more likely to have a low birth weight and be delivered preterm. Once the child goes home, it is more likely to be living in poverty and not receiving adequate care.
This Is No Small Problem
Each year, developing regions around the world see an estimated 21 million girls aged 15 to 19 become pregnant. The result is twelve million live births, millions of abortions, and millions of miscarriages. There is an additional estimated 777,000 births in girls under age fifteen in developing countries.
Although the global fertility rate for adolescent girls has declined substantially in recent decades, it remains high in some areas. This is especially so in some parts of Central Africa and South-East Asia, though it still varies from country to country and even from one city to another within countries.
Although the fertility rate for this demographic has declined, the number of births for this group has not. The reason for this is that the overall global population has grown, including this demographic.
The Hardship Hits The Underprivileged The Hardest
Although adolescent pregnancies can and do occur in any country and in any social class, they are more likely to occur in marginalized communities. Lack of education, lack of opportunity, and the usual social ills that drive poverty also push up rates of adolescent pregnancy.
In very underdeveloped countries, up to 39 percent of girls are married off before they turn eighteen. Twelve percent are married off before age fifteen.
Motherhood may be expected and may be valued as a role for women in such countries. At the same time, women often lack rights and lack opportunity for making a life of their own outside of marriage and motherhood. This double-whammy helps drive up early pregnancy in many places where it will be a real hardship due to lack of sanitation, lack of health care and lack of education generally in the population.
Often, an adolescent who knows it is a bad idea to get pregnant and wishes to avoid it simply lacks to means to control their own destiny. They may not have the legal right to obtain contraceptives. They may not have the money. Their pregnancies are all too often a result of sexual violence.
This is harmful to the physical health of both mother and child. It also means women and their children are often trapped in poverty with little hope of ever really escaping it.
A Path Forward
Making sure women have access to rights, education, contraception and earning power is a primary means to stamp out some of the worst problems in some of the worst areas. This must include young women of childbearing age who may not yet be legally counted as adults.
The World Health Organization and others nongovernmental organizations have made it a priority to reduce the incidence of adolescent pregnancy in developing countries. Some governments have also made an effort to make in-roads on this issue.
Global poverty will not be resolved without resolving the issue of adolescent pregnancy in marginalized communities. Unintended pregnancy is especially problematic and is best resolved by focusing on rights and education.
Early pregnancy is mostly imposed upon girls. Women who can think for themselves and decide for themselves rarely choose to have children so young.