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Raising the alarm on adolescent pregnancy and child marriage – UNFPA

Photo credit: UNFPA

To prevent adolescent pregnancies, we must stop blaming girls and start addressing the circumstances that make marriage and motherhood the only options for them, argues a new UNFPA report.

The report – entitled “Motherhood in Childhood: the Challenges of Teenage Pregnancy” – raises the alarm over the dramatic increase in the number of teenage pregnancies in many parts of the developing world, and its impact on adolescent girls’ health, education and economic prospects.

It also identifies child marriage as one of the key drivers of early pregnancies.

Every year, over 7 million girls below the age of 18, including 2 million girls under the age of 14, give birth in the developing world. The overwhelming majority of these births – 90% – occur within marriage. At this rate, the number of adolescent mothers under the age of 15 could rise to 3 million a year in 2030.

Child marriage at the heart of early motherhood

“Motherhood in Childhood” identifies child marriage as one of the key drivers of teenage pregnancies, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, it finds that:

  • Adolescent birth rates are highest where child marriage is most prevalent, and child marriages are generally more frequent where poverty is extreme;
  • Girls in forced marriages have little say about whether or when they become pregnant;
  • Compared to other age groups, adolescents who are married have both the lowest use of contraception and the highest levels of unmet need;
  • Married girls between the ages of 10 and 14 and who are not in school have virtually no access to sexuality education, further increasing their vulnerability to pregnancy.

Taking the blame away from adolescent mothers

“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,” explained Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, the Executive Director of UNFPA.

As long as families, communities and governments tolerate child marriage, motherhood in childhood will remain an everyday occurrence in developing countries.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin

To end adolescent pregnancies, we must take the focus away from girls’ behaviours and look at the underlying causes of adolescent pregnancy instead, argues the report, including gender inequality, poverty, sexual violence, social pressures, negative attitudes and stereotypes about women and girls, and child marriage.

“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,” stressed Dr Osotimehin.

Voices from the ground: Child brides tell their stories

Clarisse, 17, from Chad:

“I was 14… My mom and her sisters began to prepare food, and my dad asked my brothers, sisters and me to wear our best clothes because we were about to have a party. Because I didn’t know what was going on, I celebrated like everyone else. It was that day that I learned that it was my wedding.”

“School was over, just like that. Ten months later, I found myself with a baby in my arms.”

Kamal, 18, from India:

“I was 16 and never missed a day of school. I liked studying so much, I would much rather spend time with my books than watch TV! (…) Then one day, I was told I had to leave it all, as my parents bartered me for a girl my elder brother was to marry.”

“My only hope was that my husband would let me complete my studies. But he got me pregnant even before I turned 17. Since then, I have hardly ever been allowed to step out of the house.”

“Sometimes, when the others are not home, I read my old school books, and hold my baby and cry.”

Kanas, 18, from Ethiopia:

“I was given to my husband when I was little and I don’t even remember when I was given because I was so little. It’s my husband who brought me up.”