Thursday, July 11, is World Population Day and the focus this year is on adolescent pregnancy. It’s estimated that 16 million teenage girls give birth every year. Many are in African or other developing countries.
The United Nations says many teenage girls suffer from complications during child birth that lead to disability, sterility or even death. No one knows for sure how many terminated their pregnancies through unsafe abortions.
“The issue of teenage pregnancy is a major problem for us in Africa. Africa has a youthful population. About 60 percent of the population in Africa is below the age of 24, which means when we talk about pregnancy it’s going to be an issue within that age group, said Dr. Akinyele Dairo, senior program and technical advisor for women’s reproductive health at the U.N. Population Fund for the Africa Region.
He said there are several reasons for the high teen pregnancy rate in Africa.
“Number one, not enough comprehensive sexuality education in schools – either because the teachers are not prepared or because it’s not part of the curriculum. The second is that the parents are not well equipped and prepared to be able to train the young people on the issue of sexuality education. The third one is that those who are trained do not even have access to the services that will protect them from teenage pregnancy. And even where services are available in the health facilities the healthcare providers are not friendly enough to encourage to encourage the young people to come to the service delivery points,” he said.
Another reason for teenage pregnancy is early marriage.
“In many of the countries in Africa, by age 18 about 20 to 40 percent of the females are already married. And these are countries like Mauritania, Mali, like Niger, Chad – even in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Where the issue of literacy and education is low they tend to get married early,” he said.
Many girls are even taken out of school early by their parents and forced to marry young.
When young girls become pregnant their bodies may not be ready for the many changes that follow. And during childbirth they are more vulnerable to infection or obstetric fistula, which is a hole or tear between the rectum and vagina. It can leave them incontinent and shunned by their community because of the odor.
Dr. Dairo said that there’s an unknown number of teenage girls who want to end their pregnancies. But their options are limited.
“In Africa, there are only two countries where abortion is legal. That is Tunisia and South Africa. These are two countries where a young person can go into a health facility to say that I don’t want this pregnancy. I just want it terminated,” he said.
Some African countries allow abortions when the mother’s life is at risk or in cases of rape or incest.
The U.N. Population Fund official said many girls may have – what he calls – back door abortions. These may be performed by unqualified people or take place in ill-equipped or unsanitary conditions. The result can be bleeding, which can lead to death, or serious infections that can prevent them from ever getting pregnant again.
Dairo said teens need to be much better informed about sexual health through youth-friendly health centers. He says they should be advised to delay sex until they are older or prepared to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. And, he said, they should stay in school.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said when attention and resources are “devoted to the education, health and well-being of adolescent girls…they will become an even greater force for positive change in society” for generations to come.