I recently saw a girl in clinic with terrible complications following a caesarean section. The operation had been botched and she had an infection around her uterus. She was in terrible pain and critically unwell. This was in the children’s clinic; the girl was 14 years old.
This scenario is all too common. She is just one of the thousands of adolescent girls estimated to have become pregnant this year in Sierra Leone. In 2013 the country had the 7th highest teenage pregnancy rate in the world, 38% of women aged 20-24 had their first baby before the age of 18. Sierra Leone is by no means an exception. Worldwide teenage pregnancy is a huge issue, 11% of births globally are to women aged 15-19, with the majority of these taking place in low- and middle-income countries.
From a medical point of view, teenage pregnancy is terribly risky. Teenage mothers are estimated to be 40-60% more likely to die in childbirth. Their babies are 50% more likely to be stillborn or die shortly after birth than babies born to mothers in their 20s.
Terrifying medical complications aside, it can be devastating socially and economically for adolescent mums. In 2015, when schools in Sierra Leone reopened after the Ebola crisis, the minister for education banned visibly pregnant girls from school and sitting exams. This discriminatory ban persists and has been strongly condemned by, among others, Amnesty International.
A “bridging system” was started where girls can seek alternative education elsewhere, but the disruption remains huge. Often girls will be prevented from sitting exams and need to repeat a whole year of school, meaning many will not go back at all. This discriminates against the girls, but not the men who get them pregnant. After giving birth they face continued problems reintegrating into their schools of choice.
During the recent Ebola crisis teen pregnancy rates rose in Sierra Leone by an estimated 50%. This rise could give insights into why the country’s teen pregnancy rate is so high. A factor highlighted as being behind the spike in pregnancy during the Ebola outbreak was extreme poverty, with girls reportedly having sex in exchange for water, food or other forms of financial protection.
What can be done to help these girls? This problem is complex with many driving factors.
The UK is one of Europe’s great success stories with reducing its high teenage pregnancy rate. Improved sex education and access to contraception and changes in social norms are credited with this drop. Can any of the lessons learned be applied in this context?
Improving knowledge of and access to contraception is certainly important. Access to contraception in Sierra Leone is limited; an estimated 16% of women in Sierra Leone use contraception and this figure falls to 7.8% for teenagers. Safe access to abortion for girls who do not want to continue their pregnancy is essential. In Sierra Leone, the country with the world’s worst maternal mortality, abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances and unsafe abortion is estimated to account for 10% of maternal deaths. This will only be compounded by Trump’s enactment of the “global gag rule” which has a disastrous effect on funding for organisations working for women’s reproductive rights.
The girls themselves will never be the key to reducing the teenage pregnancy rate. There has to be buy in from the men
However, assuming that knowledge about and access to contraception would end this problem is deeply misguided. It puts all of the onus on to the girls not to get pregnant, it assumes they have the option of making a choice. Even when contraception is available many of the girls are not empowered to insist on its use. This approach ignores the wider societal contexts that drive the high teenage pregnancy rate. A recent report by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium highlighted some of the inadequacies in current programming.
The girls themselves will never be the key to reducing the teenage pregnancy rate. There has to be buy-in from the men, and a change in attitudes that currently accept the concept of teenage pregnancy. Currently, a lot of work being done on this issue focuses only on the girls. Addressing the attitudes that perpetuate teenage pregnancy is difficult and there are few programmes that do this at the moment. It is easy to pick out and identify the teenage women, but harder to involve the men who could potentially impregnate them.
The high adolescent pregnancy rate, in Sierra Leone and around the world, jeopardises the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The SDGs focus specifically on reducing maternal mortality, improving health for all ages and promoting women’s rights. Teenage pregnancy is a threat to the realisation of all those goals and so meaningful efforts to reduce the appalling rate are essential to making any progress.
In the hospital where I work, a teenage pregnancy support group is going on. Girls receive education sessions. Efforts are being made to find them jobs and reintegrate them into the school system. The excitement of the girls is palpable. Many of them have come from situations where they are not shown any respect, but now they are being empowered to take control of this important part of their lives.
This month the UK government hosted Family Planning Summit 2017 to recommit to this global issue, announcing that the UK would increase international development spending on family planning from £180m per year until 2020 to £225m per year until 2022. Governments from countries around the world came together to make commitments to improving women’s access to family planning. In the face of Trump’s regressive change to US policy, putting women’s reproductive rights at the centre of the international community’s agenda is of great importance.