200 teenage girls die in childbirth every day

Globally childbirth is one of the leading causes of death among teenage girls, according to a UN report calling for greater action against adolescent pregnancy.

A woman and her child wait at a health centre in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Getty.

Every day, 20,000 girls below the age of 18 give birth in developing countries, according to a report released today by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Nine out of ten of these occur within a marriage or union, and of the 7.3 million adolescent mothers giving birth each year, 2 million are under the age of fifteen. Every day, 200 adolescent mothers die in childbirth, making childbirth one of the leading causes of death among teenage girls.

95 per cent of adolescent pregnancies are in developing countries, but in every region of the world, impoverished, poorly educated and rural girls are more likely to get pregnant than their wealthier, higher educated counterparts. UNFPA describes teenage pregnancy as both "a cause and a consequence of rights violations."

The report finds that the highest rates of girls giving birth under the age of 18 occur in Niger (51 per cent), Chad (48 per cent) and Mali (46 per cent). In Bangladesh, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and Niger, one girl in 10 has a child before the age of 15.

UNFPA argues that rather than trying to change the behaviour of girls – which implies that if a girl becomes pregnant it is her fault – countries should address the underlying causes of teenage pregnancy, like gender inequality, child marriage, sexual violence, poverty, poor education and negative attitudes towards teenage girls. Many programmes on teenage pregnancy focus on girls aged 15-19, but those under 14 are the most vulnerable and are more likely to die of complications during childbirth.

Girls who become pregnant during their adolescence are also less likely to finish their education, and more likely to live in poverty. On top of this, around 3.2 million unsafe abortions are carried out among teenagers every year.

“The topic reflects UNFPA's recently renewed emphasis on empowering adolescent girls and will inform discussions under way in the United Nations and among Member States about the role of adolescents and youth in the sustainable development agenda that will follow the Millennium Development Goals in 2015,” says Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund. “There are 580 million adolescent girls in the world today. Investing in them now – to empower them, including in ways that help them prevent pregnancy – can unleash their full potential in the future.”