Since 1991, the World Population Day is marked annually on July 11 by countries across the globe. The purpose of this celebration is to stimulate awareness of key population issues and reflect on ways to address them. As in the other parts of the world, the World Population Day was celebrated in Rwanda last week, on the July 11.
This year’s theme for the World Population Day is ‘Adolescent Pregnancy’.
About 16 million girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, and complications from pregnancy and child birth are the leading causes of death among girls in this age group, especially in developing countries.
The vast majority – 90 per cent – of the pregnant adolescents in the developing world are married. But for far too many of these girls, pregnancy has little to do with informed choice. Often it is a consequence of inadequate education, discrimination, human rights violations (including child marriage), or sexual coercion.
There are over 600 million girls in the world today, more than 500 million of them in developing countries. They can shape humanity’s present and future. The opportunities and choices girls have during adolescence will determine whether they will begin adulthood as empowered, active citizens or not.
With the right skills and opportunities, they can invest in themselves, in their families and their communities. However, early or unplanned pregnancy jeopardizes the rights, health, education and potential of far too many adolescent girls, robbing them of a better future.
Adolescent pregnancy is not just a health issue, it is a development issue. It is deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, violence, child and forced marriage, power imbalances between adolescent girls and their male partners, lack of education, and the failure of systems and institutions to protect their rights.
This is the reason why this year’s World Population Day is focusing on adolescent pregnancy.
In Rwanda, recent statistics indicate that 47 per cent of maternal deaths occur in the age group of 15-19 year old mothers (DHS 2010). The value for adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19) in Rwanda was 41 as of 2010 (DHS 2010). By comparison, the adolescent fertility rate in Kenya is 98, in the USA 30, and in Switzerland 4 (United Nations Population Division). Rwanda’s adolescent fertility rate is favourable compared to the average for developing countries although more needs to be done to improve it.
The Government of Rwanda has already laid the foundation to address the issue of adolescent pregnancies and is fully committed to improving the welfare of adolescents and young people.
A number of initiatives have been introduced to assist adolescents and young people including: Itorero, mentorship programmes, the Imbuto Foundation’s initiative to encourage excellence among girls, and youth centres in all districts, amongst others. The One UN Joint Youth Programme has successfully assisted the Government in empowering the youth and continues to support the work of the Imbuto Foundation.
However, at the global and national level more needs to be done as deep challenges remain.
In his statement, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said: “We must get girls into primary school and enable them to receive a good education through their adolescence. When a young girl is educated, she is more likely to marry later, delay childbearing until she is ready, have healthier children, and earn a higher income.”
One UN Rwanda is committed to supporting the Government of Rwanda in its effort to improve the welfare of adolescents and young people.
Breaking the cycle of adolescent pregnancy requires sustained commitment from the Government, development partners, civil society, communities and individuals to invest in adolescent girls. Empowered girls can help lift themselves and their present and future families out of poverty. This would make them a force for change in their communities and generations to come.
Adolescents and youth must be provided with age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education to develop the knowledge and skills they need to protect their health throughout their lives. However, education and information are not enough. Good quality reproductive health services must also be readily available in order for adolescents to make informed choices and be healthy.
At the local level, communities should provide the infrastructure to deliver reproductive health care in a youth-friendly and sensitive way.We should create safe space programmes that provide a regular and safe space for girls to meet, have access to friends and mentors, and deliver programme content in life skills, education, health, and access to services.
Underlying all these efforts is the understanding that the dignity and human rights of adolescent girls must be respected, protected and fulfilled.
In this regard, we call on all stakeholders involved to take measures that enable adolescent girls to make responsible life choices and to provide the necessary support for them in cases when their rights are threatened. Every young girl, regardless of where she lives, or her economic circumstances, has the right to fulfill her human potential.
Too many girls are still denied that right.
We can change that, and we must.
The writer is the UN Resident Coordinator