The State of World Population 2013: Motherhood in Childhood

30 October 2013

Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin during the launch of The State of World Population 2013

Today we welcome the launch of UNFPA’s The State of World Population 2013, entitled “Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenge of Adolescent Pregnancy.”

The aim of UNFPA’s State of World Population 2013 is to provoke a new way of thinking about and tackling adolescent pregnancy and to encourage a shift away from interventions targeted at girls towards broad-based approaches that build girls’ human capital, protect girls’ rights and empower them to make decisions.

Every day in developing countries, 20,000 girls under age 18 give birth, adding up to 7.3 million a year. If you include all pregnancies, not just births, the number is much higher.

Each pregnancy brings great risks to a girl.

It endangers her health.

It takes a psychological toll.

Very often it forces her to leave school.

And a girl without an education is a girl who lacks the skills to find a job and build a future for herself and her family and to contribute to her nation’s development.

The economic impact of adolescent pregnancy can be enormous. In a large economy like China, the lifetime opportunity cost related to adolescent pregnancy equals an estimated 1 per cent of annual GDP, or $124 billion [GDP, PPP, World Bank data]. Even in a smaller economy, like that of Uganda, the costs can amount to as much as 30 per cent of GDP—or about $15 billion.

The impact of a pregnancy can be great on any adolescent, but especially on a girl who is 14 or younger. Each year, 2 million girls 14 or younger give birth.

Very young girls are especially vulnerable to exploitation, child marriage, and sexual coercion and violence.

A pregnancy endangers them physically and developmentally.

Girls who are pregnant so young are at twice the risk of death and disability than older girls and women.

A girl who is pregnant at 14 or earlier is a girl whose rights have been violated, whose future has been forever derailed.

Pregnancy harms the girl in many ways. But it also harms her household, her community, her country and even the economy.

The tendency in many parts of the world is to blame the girl for becoming pregnant.

And when a girl’s behaviour is erroneously seen as the problem, changing her behaviour may be wrongly seen as the sole solution.

The reality is that pregnancy often has less to do with girls’ personal behaviour and more to do with the behaviour of their families, communities and governments.

UNFPA’s State of World Population makes the case that adolescent pregnancy should not be seen only as the result of recklessness or a deliberate choice but rather that of an absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control.

Throughout the world, adolescent pregnancies are more common among the poor, the uneducated, the rural.

And they occur more frequently among:

  • girls who are marginalized,
  • girls who have no access to information and services,
  • girls who have little say in decisions affecting their lives,
  • girls whose realities and futures are determined by others.

Adolescent pregnancy is a manifestation of inequity, poverty, and a belief that somehow girls deserve less in life than boys. Or that girls are not entitled to enjoy basic human rights to education, to health, to live free from fear of violence and discrimination.

Adolescent pregnancy equals powerlessness.

One of the worst forms of powerlessness is child marriage. UNFPA’s State of World Population shows that nine of 10 pregnancies to girls under 18 occur within marriage. Every day, 39,000 girls are married, in violation of their basic human rights. One in nine is married before 15.

Girls who have no say about whether, to whom and when they marry likely have no say about whether or when to begin childbearing.

As long as families, communities and governments tolerate child marriage, motherhood in childhood will remain an everyday occurrence in developing countries, and girls’ basic human rights will continue to be violated.

What must we do to rise to the challenge of adolescent pregnancy and ensure girls’ safe, healthy and affirming transitions from childhood to adulthood?

UNFPA’s State of World Population calls for actions that empower girls, uphold their basic human rights, and put them on an equal footing with boys.

A priority is education.

Enabling girls to attend and remain in school is critical.

The UNFPA report shows that girls who remain in school longer are less likely to become pregnant.

Education prepares girls for future jobs and livelihoods, raises their self-esteem and status, and gives them more say in decisions affecting their lives.

Education also reduces the likelihood of child marriage and delays childbearing.

It is also critically important to enact laws against child marriage and enforce those on the books.

We must protect adolescents’ rights to comprehensive sexuality education and tear down obstacles to information and services that can help them avoid pregnancy.

We must socialize boys differently so they see girls as equal human beings who deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Help boys—and men—become part of the solution.

And girls who are pregnant need our support, not stigma. They need our help to stay in school while they are pregnant and resume their education after they give birth.

Much of what we know applies mainly to girls 15 and older. We know too little about the challenges and extreme vulnerabilities of girls 14 or younger. We must fill this void in our knowledge and find new ways to protect very young adolescents from exploitation, subjugation, abuse—and pregnancy.

Girls 10 to 14 are the most powerless and in need of support.

For these very young girls, special actions should be taken early, during this critical stage of their development, to build their agency and protect their rights.

But regardless of the age, we must confront child marriage, illiteracy and poverty and the other underlying forces that drive adolescent pregnancy.

Building a gender-equitable society in which girls are empowered, educated, healthy and protected from child marriage, live in dignity and security and are able to make decisions about their futures and exercise their rights is essential.

By empowering girls, protecting their rights and helping them prevent pregnancy, we can make it possible for girls to realize their potential, to become equal partners in development.

UNFPA strives to uphold every girl’s right to grow up unhindered by gender inequality and discrimination, violence, child marriage, and pregnancy so they may make a safe, healthy and successful transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Childhood must never be derailed by motherhood.

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