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The case for investing in teenage girls

Monday, July 11, 2016

Feature

The value of investing in teenage girls is the focus of this year’s World Population Day (11 July). We take a look globally at the great things that could happen if societies and countries invested in teenage girls. 

There are millions of teenage girls living around the world, each with immense potential for what they can achieve in their lifetime.

Source: UNFPA

Far too often, however, an unintended pregnancy can cut a girl’s opportunities short.

One of the best investments that can be made to secure a girl’s social and economic wellbeing is in her sexual and reproductive health.

By providing teenage girls with access to reliable contraception, they can delay pregnancy, and control their own futures.

Investing in sexual and reproductive health for girls

Investing in contraception is one of the most cost-effective investments that can be made for a population.

In the developing world, 60% of sexually active girls aged 15-19 don’t have access to modern methods of contraception.

This means the majority of girls (84 per cent) aren’t using any contraception at all, while the remainder (16 per cent) use traditional, and less effective, methods.

A recent study shows that providing contraception to teenage girls aged 15-19 who are having sex but want to prevent pregnancy would cost just $21 per person per year.

The impact of this investment would be life-changing. Each year there would be:

  • 6 million fewer unintended pregnancies
  • 3.2 million fewer abortions, the majority of which would have been unsafe
  • 2.1 million fewer unplanned births.

Increasing evidence suggests the long-term economic and health benefits of increasing access to contraception for teenage girls far outweigh the financial costs.

Unintended teenage pregnancy

Sadly, for millions of young women around the world, teen pregnancy is not a choice.

Girls are often married off by their families at a young age and forced into motherhood.

They are frequently at risk of sexual violence and coercion both within marriage, and outside marriage – whether it’s a boyfriend, a known acquaintance or a stranger.

Poverty and limited education opportunities leave girls unable to protect themselves from unintended pregancy and STIs, and it is shown that even those who want to use contraception find it more difficult to access than other women do.

Source: UNFPA                                                                                                                                                           Source: UNFPA

A health risk

Pregnancy for a teenage girl is far more dangerous than pregnancy for older women, as it exposes both the girl and her baby to a number of health risks, and even death.

  • Young women are at greater risk of having complications during pregnancy and labour. In fact, maternal mortality is the second leading cause of death among teenage girls. 
  • Unintended pregnancies to teenage mothers are also more likely to end in abortion. It’s estimated 3 million teenage girls aged 15-19 have unsafe abortions every year. 
  • In developing countries, babies born to teenage mothers are 50 per cent more likely to die at birth or in the first few weeks, compared to babies with mothers in their 20s.

The social and economic impact on her future

When a girl becomes pregnant, it’s not just her health that is threatened. The social and economic impact of being a young mother can leave a girl destined for a life of poverty and powerlessness. 

A pregnant teenage girl will often be forced to drop out of school and with little education and few skills, she will likely live a life with fewer opportunities and less earning potential.

Preventing Unintended Pregnancy GuttmacherA girl’s social and economic disadvantage can often be passed down to her child, starting their life on the back foot, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. 

Not being able to fully contribute to her community’s economy, teenage pregnancy has a flow-on effect that goes beyond her family and has an impact on the economy at a national level.

Access to contraception can be life-changing

Allowing a young woman to wait until she is ready to have children, and to choose the number and spacing of her children, will set her up for a brighter, healthier future.

Investing in sexual and reproductive health services is a life-changing and cost-effective investment – not just for the millions of girls at risk of becoming teenage mothers, but for the health of her future children, and the development and growth of her community.

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