As teen pregnancies continue to decline in the United States, developing nations continue to see a disturbing trend of pregnancies in underage girls. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF,) nearly 19 percent of girls under the age of 18 will become pregnant this year and nearly 20 percent of them will occur in girls under age 14.

The greatest concentration of underage births occur in regions where women are seen as having less power than their male counterparts which is the case in West African, Latin American and Southern Asian countries.

Often girls become pregnant as a result of cultural traditions or economic hardship. For example, impoverished families may sell daughters for financial profit in areas where food and basic necessities are scarce.

Arranged marriages are still rampant in many cultures around the world and parents welcome the chance to lessen the financial burden of an additional child to feed. However, girls are often faced with physical or sexual abuse in addition to limited access to education and healthcare during their forced marriages.

UNICEF reports nearly 70,000 girls die from pregnancy and childbirth complications each year. In fact, pregnancies under the age of 15 significantly raise the risk of seizures, anemia, uterine infections and other life-threatening ailments.

In September, an eight year old Yemen girl named Rawan died from injuries suffered during her wedding night with her 40 year old ‘husband.’ She was rushed to a nearby clinic due to uterine rupture and bleeding, but was unable to be saved. Officials denied the event occurred, but local human rights activists are criticizing the cover-up. Despite efforts by human rights activists, over 50 percent of Yemen girls continue to marry before their eighteenth birthday due to societal and familial pressures.

The unfortunate trend continues to affect the lives of young women in India like Komol, whose plan to attend college was derailed when she became pregnant by her husband at age 16. The UNPF defines situations like Komol’s as human rights issues since girls are denied the freedom of governing their reproductive rights. UNPF executive director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin argues that such practices destroy the future of millions of girls.

As girls become pregnant, their severely limited access to education become non-existent as they become confined to running households. Moreover, other influences such as lack of reproductive healthcare, sexual abuse and poverty also contribute to underage pregnancies.

The extent of economic hardship and access to education are clearly related. In response to the practice, programs in Kenya and Guatemala have recently invested in raising girls’ access to education in order to decrease child pregnancies.

– Jasmine D. Smith

Sources: CNN, Reuters
Photo: National Geographic