According to the World Health Organization, pregnancies under the age of 20 are referred to as teenage
pregnancies. Every year, an estimated 21 million girls aged 15-19 years in developing regions become pregnant and approximately 12 million of them give birth. At least 777,000 births occur with adolescent girls younger than 15 years in developing regions. In the developing world about 2.5 million females under the age of 16 and 16 million females 15-19 years old have children each year. This is more common in rural areas and a majority of them tend to come from low income families.
Why does this happen?
One of the main reasons for this is poverty and lack of sex education. According to UNICEF, adults may lure adolescents into sexual activity in exchange for goods and favours. Financial issues make youngsters quit schooling and take up a family life, compelling them to have children. This affects girls’ education and income potential as many are forced to drop out of school which ultimately threatens future opportunities and economic prospects. This is mostly due to unavailability of basic education, unemployment, oppression of women and wrong beliefs. Early arranged marriages according to certain cultures is another key reason.
For girls aged 15-19, risks regarding this issue are mostly associated with socio-economic factors, and those who are under 15 have additional concerns since they are less likely to be physically developed to sustain a healthy pregnancy or to give birth. Consequences such as low birth weight, premature labour, anemia and pre-eclampsia together with the lack of parental care is abundant among the children of teenage mothers, making their survival rate much lower. Compilations related to pregnancy are also the most common cause of death among females 15-19 years old. Diseases spread from young parents to unborn children because of unplanned pregnancies too is a risk factor.
"In comparison to other Asian countries which concern cultural acceptance, the “perceived threat” of adolescent pregnancies is low in Sri Lanka"
Teenage Pregnancy in Sri Lanka
Teenage pregnancy was a major concern in Sri Lanka as its rate was 6.5% in 2009. According to one recent study, a slight decrease of teen pregnancy in Sri Lanka was observed between 2015 and 2019, where the percentage decreased from 5.2% to 4.4%. However, the adolescent fertility rate has stagnated around 30 per 1,000 adolescents during the past four decades in Sri Lanka, which raises concerns about the effectiveness of the existing interventions. National data on teenage pregnancies reveal a prevalence of 4.4%, which has shown very slow improvement over the past few years amounting to around 20% of teenage pregnancies occurring among adolescents below 17 years. In comparison to other Asian countries which concern cultural acceptance, the “perceived threat” of adolescent pregnancies is low in Sri Lanka. But the utilization of sexual and reproductive health services by adolescents is less documented and an underrated issue in our country.
Teenage girls from families that are facing poverty, happen to get into married life or even become young mothers mainly because of the inability to be raised by parents due to the financial crisis. Instead of a solution this ultimately turns out to be another issue: if there’s not enough financial support, it’ll only turn out to be another family entering poverty.
The health of the newborn baby and the mother are affected the most here, as they lack nutritional food in order to feed and to be fed. In this case the baby is exposed to various physical and mental illnesses due to malnutrition. Also unavailability of proper hospital facilities around the area or having no access to see to the expenses for monthly check ups can cause issues in childbirth.
Young parents who are less fortunate face constant neglect and isolation due to their social status. As teenagers, it is hard to find a well paid job as it applies to terms like under age or lack of qualifications and the only option left for them is working for low wages. This can only expose another family to poverty.
"Sex education in Sri Lanka is considered as something that one should come to know only after entering adulthood. Most of the family members or elders don’t educate their children in their teenage years about this segment because they either feel awkward or don’t know exactly how to"
Lack of Sex Education
Adolescence is the period one begins to experience physical, emotional and behavioral changes. Yet sex education in Sri Lanka is considered as something that one should come to know only after entering adulthood. Most of the family members or elders don’t educate their children in their teenage years about this segment because they either feel awkward or don’t know exactly how to. As parents or family members it’s their responsibility to make sure that their child is growing up with the required knowledge regarding every aspect that is relevant to their age.
When entering parenthood without needed knowledge, issues occur in both pre childbirth and post childbirth and sometimes even during raising the child.
- Unplanned pregnancies can lead to abortion without proper health guidelines.
- Having no idea about how to take care of the unborn baby can lead to complications.
- Lack of basic sex education can make one not know how to avoid unplanned pregnancies.
According to some studies, most of the girls who get sexually abused are from rural areas. The main causes for this are sexual harassment that occurs while travelling alone and being forced and victimized by villagers and elders. Forced prostitution and domestic abuse also lead to teen pregnancy in wide scales in Sri Lanka. Teenagers of rural areas become pregnant often as they don’t seem to have proper safety methods or solutions to protect themselves or avoid it.
"Through discussion, action, teaching and awareness, it is possible that we as a country would be able to prevent this catastrophe and give the rightful life experiences, guidance and opportunities that our young generation deserves"
According to reports, culture bias is one common reason for early marriages.
Families that are culturally biased believe that giving their child in hand of marriage at a very young age is the right thing to do. This is another reason which contributes to the increase in the number of young families. When a teenage girl is married under this condition, she is no longer considered a child but a married woman and is expected to give birth soon after.
It is also known that girls who are unable to bear children soon after marriage, are either cornered or sent away from the family. At times if the gender of the newborn baby differs from what the spouse or the family was expecting, the young mother along with the baby are no longer considered as family members. Issues like these have also led to unsafe abortion, malnutrition, suicide and depression.
Speaking to the writers of this article, a team of social workers, who visited Kalpitiya, recounted that almost all girls who lived on the island were mothers by the age of 16. The reasons behind this were the lack of schools or learning facilities after the age of 10 and getting married at a very young age because there’s no other option to continue studies. It was also observed that the teenage boys of this island are sent to fish in the sea as it’s their sole source of income. One of the social workers noted that several youngsters have no regrets about entering family life by the age of 16 or 17 as that has been their norm for a long time.
Another teenage couple who became young parents had to face many difficulties as they had no little to no sexuality education. The young mother was physically and mentally affected before and after childbirth as their family didn’t want to accept them.
"Families that are culturally biased believe that giving their child in hand of marriage at a very young age is the right thing to do"
Adverse mental health problems
Teenage girls who are pregnant or new mothers are reportedly seven times more likely to commit suicide than other teenagers. Many teen parents do not have the intellectual, emotional or physical maturity that is needed to provide for another life. This makes them vulnerable to blood pressure, fear, anxiety and depression in response to stressful life events. Inadequate parental care can result in dangerous outcomes for the babies including malnutrition, development disabilities such as intellectual, language and socio-emotional delays, behavioural issues and predisposing them to many other lifelong conditions. Adolescent mothers who have suboptimal BMI (Body mass index), high prevalence of anemia and poor mental health status will have short and long-term effects on both mother and the child. Adolescents may also lack knowledge of, or access to, conventional methods of preventing pregnancy, as they may be too embarrassed or frightened to seek such information.
A holistic approach is required in order to address teenage pregnancy. This means not focusing on changing the behaviour of girls but addressing the underlying reasons of adolescent pregnancy such as poverty, gender inequality, social pressures and coercion.
Several policy implications such as introducing teenage pregnancy prevention programmes, awareness programmes on negative consequences of teenage pregnancy, educational campaigns conducted in their own mother tongues, and taking necessary actions to stop child marriages are needed in order to see a decrease in this matter. Since most teenage mothers are rarely employed, providing them with vocational training opportunities and teenage couple counselling programmes to manage their conflicts and help them come out of them can be really beneficial and helpful. Ethnicity specific studies on teenage pregnancies with more statistical analysis is important as well. Adolescent-friendly spaces in local health units to assure the confidentiality and privacy of young people is also a vital need.
"Adolescent-friendly spaces in local health units to assure the confidentiality and privacy of young people is also a vital need"
In countries like Sri Lanka, where sexual education is scarce, young people get their sexual and reproductive health information (SRH) from informal and inaccurate sources, which in turn contribute to the cycle of misinformation. Therefore, providing age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education, access to birth control and SRH services are important. According to research, primigravida (pregnant for the first time) adolescent pregnancies are a significant public health problem in the Anuradhapura district. Investing in girls’ education, building gender-equitable societies, taking strict actions against abuse and forced prostitution can help prevent these plights.
The young community will be the successors of any society and their effective and proper preparation into adulthood influences the future of a country extensively. It is possible to minimize teen pregnancy in our country through comprehensive and proper education. A substantial fraction of this issue in Sri Lanka is hidden and not documented. Through discussion, action, teaching and awareness, it is possible that we as a country would be able to prevent this catastrophe and give the rightful life experiences, guidance and opportunities that our young generation deserves.