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Are we aborting the futures of our teenage girls?

© UNICEF Malaysia/2008

By Indra Kumari Nadchatram

In 1968, world leaders proclaimed that individuals have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and timing of their children. This year’s World Population Day, themed "Plan your future, Plan your family” reaffirms the importance of helping young people to plan their families and their futures.

KUALA LUMPUR, 7 July 2008 – Each day, around the world, close to 40,000 children are born to both married and unmarried girls aged 15 to 19. Tragically, some of these girls who are children themselves may not live to see the birth of their baby, as they are twice more likely to die from complications during pregnancy and childbearing as women in their 20s. 

A teenage girl may become pregnant as a result of varying situations. Many, especially in the developing world become pregnant following an early marriage, some during a long-term dating relationship. Other girls become pregnant after hooking up. And, some girls may become pregnant as a result of rape.

While some of these pregnancies are heralded and celebrated with much joy by the community, rightly or wrongly, others especially those of unwed teen mothers are steeped in shame, prejudice and social stigma.

Robbing a girl of her future

According to UNICEF Representative to Malaysia, Mr. Youssouf Oomar, teenage pregnancies must be viewed with serious concern as it limits and can affect a girl’s future.

“Pregnancy during teenage years can potentially rob a girl of her future. There is a lot of social stigma against unwed mothers that may lead young girls to unsafe abortions, to back door practices that can threaten their lives,” said Mr. Youssouf. “It can have a huge emotional and psychological impact on a girl who feels she has no other choice but to destroy her baby or give the baby up at birth.”

While teenage pregnancies endanger a girl’s future, her opportunities for an education that can transform her life and her mental wellbeing, what is even more disconcerting is the devastating harm it can have on her health.

Clearly, all teenage pregnancies are the result of unprotected sexual activity, whether voluntary or involuntary. While pregnancy is one manifestation of such activity, other health risks such as sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, often ignored by teens and adults, pose a far greater threat on young lives.

Helping teens with growing up pains

In Malaysia, a country that celebrates its Asian identity and culture, most adults – parents and teachers – shun from speaking to their children and students about sex and sexuality, considering the topic taboo and out of bounds to young people.

Left on their own, and confronted with their burgeoning sexualities and a budding curiosity about relationships, teenagers resort to their peers, the internet, movies and magazines for information they desperately seek on the issue. Most times, the information gleaned is sketchy at best, over romanticised and simply does not help young people make the right and safe decision.

“We cannot afford to ignore the challenges young people face. Growing up is not just about text books and passing exams. Children change not only physically as they go through adolescence, but also emotionally,” added Mr. Youssouf. “As adults, we must be brave to be with them on every part of this journey, to hold their hands, to inform and educate them, to build their confidence so they can make the right decisions for themselves.”

Promoting abstinence only to teen girls and boys however ignores ground reality. On the other hand, talking only about contraception and condoms may encourage high-risk behaviour amongst young people. So, how then do we approach this issue?

A comprehensive reproductive health program

UNICEF believes that a comprehensive reproductive health education program, coupled with life skills is the way to go. One that addresses puberty and relationships, explores gender norms that shape boys notions of masculinity and equips teens with the skills to negotiate safer sex, if necessary.

Mr. Youssouf is quick to point out however that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. To ensure success, strategies must be designed to suit all youth segments.

“We must take into account that not all teens and young people are in school or single. Some may have jobs and may be married. Some may live with parents, some with friends or on the streets. To reach each and every one of them, we need a range of programs, delivered using a variety of platforms,” he said.

Working bravely and creatively

While moving forward constructively may seems fraught with challenges given the social environment we live in, it is also clear that as we work to overcome these cultural obstacles, we will inadvertently help our young make decisions that will have a positive outcome on their lives as well as on our planet’s future – not just the size of the world’s population, but also its dynamics and well-being.

With these in mind, we need to ask ourselves if we can work bravely and creatively to give our young girls a chance for a bright future …. or do we allow our fears and prejudices to abort it now.

The decision is ours to make.

This article was published in the New Sunday Times on 6 July 2008.



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