Adolescent pregnancy, risks and child rights: The global context | Sunday Observer

Adolescent pregnancy, risks and child rights: The global context

The WHO estimates about 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 years and 2.5 million girls under 16 years give birth annually in developing countries. The complications as a result of the pregnancy and delivery are the leading causes of death worldwide, in the 15-19-year age group in girls. Adolescent mothers (ages 10 to 19 years) have higher risks of complications than women aged 20 to 24 years.

From a global context, adolescent girls may be unable to refuse unwanted sex or resist coerced sex. It is more difficult for a teenager both physically and socially to resist violence including sex.

In addition, the emotional, psychological and social needs of expectant adolescent girls can be more than those of adult women. Girls who become pregnant before age 18 are more likely to experience violence within marriage. An estimated five per cent to 33 per cent of girls agesd15 to 24 years who drop out of school in some countries do so because of early pregnancy or marriage. Girls with lower educational attainment will have fewer skills and opportunities for employment, and may be socially backward and dependent on the partner and family. In the event of the partner leaving her or dying she will have to face an uphill task of maintaining a family which may be large in numbers.

This will also have an economic cost to the country since productivity would be compromised by dependency.

Early pregnancy can increase risks to new-born babies, as well as to the young mothers as well. In developing countries, mothers under 20 years of age face higher risks of low birth weight, premature delivery, and other severe neonatal conditions.

These children of low weight would remain small and stunted leading to short and malnourished second generation that would perpetuate the vicious cycle of inter generational malnutrition. Rapid repeated pregnancies lead to further risks for both the mother and child.

Sri Lankan Context

Twelve per cent of girls in Sri Lanka are married before the age of 18 and two per cent are married before their 15th birthday (2017 data UNICEF). Although Sri Lanka has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals the Government has not reported on the progress.

Although the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UN CRC), does not clearly address early marriage, the entire Convention is relevant to the harmful consequences of early marriage, especially the right to protection from violence (Article 19), the right to health (Article 24), the right to education (Article 28), and the right to protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (Article 34).

The CRC Committee includes child marriage in its reports and recommends that countries adopt higher legal minimum ages and eliminate gender disparities in minimum age laws.

Sri Lanka ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1981, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.

Age at Marriage and Life Expectancy

During the middle ages it is estimated that the average life expectancy in Europe was 20-35 years. Later on in the 1800’s it was higher ( In Sri Lanka in 1950 the average life expectancy was 52 and today it is 76.8. ( I the day and age when women died early it was natural for them to marry early as soon as she attained sexual maturity (Menarche).

However, they did not (it was probably not possible?) consider the physical and psychological maturity of the girl child. Since modern Medicine and improved living conditions have extensively increased the life expectancy it is justifiable to increase the age of marriage for the physical and mental well-being of the mother, child and society.

​The writer Vidyajothi Prof. Harendra De Silva MBBS, DCH, MSc(Birm), FRCP(Lond & Edin), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCP, FCPS (Pak) is Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics (Col) and was the Founder Chairman NCPA . He is also a Senior Ashoka Fellow (Wash DC) .