The violent truth about teenage pregnancy - What children say (September 2019)
Teenage pregnancy is often identified by children and young people as one of the critical issues in their communities. Across World Vision programmes in subSaharan Africa, children see teenage pregnancy as a major impediment to the education, health and wellbeing of their peers. This is not a surprise given that nearly one-fifth of all girls become pregnant while still in their adolescence in Africa, and girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
Recently, World Vision worked with children across seven countries in Africa to undertake research looking into this issue. The child-led and participatory research projects uncovered a strong connection between teenage pregnancy and sexual violence and abuse.
Approximately 15 million adolescent girls (aged 15 – 19) worldwide have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts at some point in their life. A growing number of studies, particularly from subSaharan Africa, indicate that the first sexual experience of girls is often unwelcome and forced.
For many girls, sexual abuse leads to unwanted pregnancy as teenage girls who have been forced into sex are less likely to have the opportunity or choice to use contraceptives.
The evidence shows that in many places girls are at greatest risk of exposure to sexual violence within the context of close relationships such as those with family, friends and intimate partners.
Lack of safe access to water and sanitation and safe passages to schools can also increase the risks of sexual abuse and rape.
However, what was reflected strongly in the research was the extent to which poverty, combined with a high cost of education, lack of parental care and lack of income support for children, may lead girls to be forced by circumstance to exchange sex for money and goods.6&7 In some cases, teachers may even blackmail girls for sexual favours.
Occasionally girls may enter sex work, but more often they form transactional relationships with influential men – teachers, neighbours, public officials – and those, like motorcycle drivers or petty traders, who seem able to provide for their basic needs of food and transport. One study in Ghana even tied teen pregnancy as a result of transactional relationships to period poverty and the need for sanitary pads.
Prior research found that among girls in sub-Saharan Africa who became pregnant, the average age of the fathers tended to be significantly older. In Tanzania, one study found that over 50 per cent of the men who impregnated girls aged 12 – 19 were more than 30 years old. This leaves girls more at risk, as research finds that sexual abuse by older men (common in all seven child research projects) also leaves girls at higher risk of HIV/AIDs and non-use of condoms.
Child marriage can also lead to sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies since children involved are unable to give or withhold their consent. The results are dangerous for young girls. Just a 10 per cent reduction in child marriage could contribute to a 70 per cent reduction in maternal mortality and a three per cent reduction in infant mortality rates.12 Studies estimate the cumulative cost of early pregnancy due to child marriage at US$566 billion by 2030.
Even though sexual violence and abuse, especially commercial sexual exploitation and child marriage, are illegal, these practices persist. Not enough is done to implement existing laws, and quite often harmful practices are condoned by communities whose understanding of childhood and gender roles can increase girls’ vulnerability.
The consequences of teenage pregnancies are well documented. Many girls or their children do not survive; others suffer from stigma and are left to care for their children on their own in poverty and without proper health care. Young mothers almost always drop out of school, thus forgoing opportunities for education and a better life. Very few countries have established and implemented policies to ensure that girls are allowed and enabled to go back to school once they become mothers.
Not all teenage pregnancies are the result of sexual violence or are unwanted. Likewise, not all sexual violence results in teenage pregnancy. However, exposing the linkages between sexual violence and teenage pregnancy can help strengthen the following measures, necessary to prevent and respond to both problems:
• Ensure zero tolerance of sexual violence against girls and boys
• Make sure schools are accessible and safe for girls to learn without fear
• Provide economic opportunities to families to prevent negative coping strategies
• Empower girls and teach children to manage risks
• Address harmful gender norms and practices such as child marriage.
This report aims to harness children’s views and experiences of teen pregnancy and draw attention to the urgent need to address these issues.