Child brides and family planning: five things you need to know

Photo credit: Ashenafi Tibebe | The Elders

“Women and girls deserve full choice and full access to family planning” is the message of the 3rd International Family Planning Conference taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week.

An estimated 3000 health professionals, policy-makers and civil society representatives are gathering for one of the largest family planning meetings ever organised to celebrate successes in bringing sexual and reproductive health services to women and girls worldwide and to discuss how to ensure millions more are able to access to family planning.

The needs of married adolescent girls must be at the heart of these discussions.

By enabling women and girls to choose when and whether to have children, family planning gives them choice, power and autonomy and helps ensure their safe passage into adulthood. Yet all too often, child brides are denied these rights.

Here are five things you need to know about child brides and family planning.

Child marriage is one of the main drivers of adolescent pregnancies

Did you know? 90% of births to adolescent girls in the developing world occur within a marriage or union.

Child brides typically face intense social pressure from their husband, in-laws and family to prove their fertility, which means they are more likely to become pregnant early and often.

Child brides have little say in whether they bear children

Did you know? Married adolescents have the lowest use of contraception and the highest levels of unmet need.

Adolescent girls do not always realise they have a right to contraception, the right to choose if, when and how many children to have. This is particularly true for girls who are not in school and have virtually no access to sexual health and rights education.

Even when they wish to use some form of contraception, married adolescents may not have the autonomy and power needed to access family planning services. In many contexts, child brides are married to men who are often much older than they are, and they lack the negotiation skills and the confidence to assert their needs to their husbands.

Pregnancy and childbirth put child brides at risk of serious injuries and death

Did you know? Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in developing countries.

Child marriage encourages the initiation of sexual activity at an age when girls’ bodies are still developing. Girls who become pregnant during their childhood or adolescence are too young to cope with the toll of pregnancy and they face serious risks during the course of their pregnancy and childbirth.

In fact, girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women who are in their 20s. They are also at significant risk of pregnancy-related complications: 65% of all cases of obstetric fistula occur in girls under the age of 18.

Early pregnancy not only affects mothers, it affects their children too

Did you know? The younger the mother, the greater the risk for her child.

In developing countries, babies born to mothers who are under the age of 20 are 50% more likely to be stillborn and to die in the first week and first month of life.

Adolescent mothers are also more likely to have babies with low birth weight.

We cannot improve adolescent girls’ choices and wellbeing without addressing child marriage

Did you know? Research shows that a 10% reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70% reduction in a country’s maternal mortality rates.

The scale of the problem is huge. According to UNFPA, approximately 142 girls will marry as children between 2010 and 2020.

Acting now to prevent child marriage, support married girls and address the social and cultural beliefs that perpetuate the practice could dramatically improve the lives of millions of girls and women.

How can we improve girls’ – both married and unmarried – access to family planning?

  • Ensure that family planning programmes take married and unmarried adolescent girls into account and offer quality services that are adolescent-friendly
  • Address the factors that drive early pregnancies and early marriage, including poverty, insecurity, the lack of opportunities for girls, traditional roles of wives and mothers, and gender inequality
  • Safe spaces for adolescent girls to interact, exchange information and learn about their rights and the family planning options available to them.