By Asma al-Mohattwari
“Childhood must never be derailed by motherhood,” said Lene K. Christiansen, UNFPA representative to Yemen.
When a child girl becomes pregnant, her present and future change radically, and rarely for the better. Her education may come to an end, her job prospects evaporate, and her risk of poverty, societal exclusion and dependency increase greatly. Every day, 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth in developing countries and encounter these consequences. Teenage pregnancy is also prevalent in developed countries, though on a much smaller scale.
In a developing country like Yemen, high rates of early marriage, and the consequent high fertility and birth rate, have led to rapid population growth. Dr. Ahmed al-Anssi, Minister of Health and Vice President of the National Council for population, revealed that the Yemen’s population was increasing at an unprecedented rate, with one million new Yemenis being born every twenty months. In the past, such growth required decades.
In the UNFPA’s (United Nations Fund for Population) 2013 State of the World Population Report, entitled “Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenge of Adolescent Pregnancy”, Dr. al-Anssi said that for the first time, the population of Sana’a has exceeded two million people.
He explained that this rapid population growth in Yemen led to increased demands for vital services and resources. “If crucial decisions are not made on a political plan to alleviate Yemen’s ongoing population growth, development programs will fail to meet the needs of the population,” he added.
According to al-Anssi, child marriage in Yemen is the first problem that should be resolved in the attempt to slow Yemen’s population growth. In addition to catalyzing population expansion, child marriage also affects Yemeni children medically, economically and socially.
“The Yemeni government should support national population policy and achieve its goals. Donors and interested parties also must support this development orientation in order to properly address community issues and enhance Yemeni life.”
Dr. Ahmed Borji, secretary-general of the National Population Council, noted that 60% of women were married under the age of 18, according to a household survey conducted in 2003. At the time of the survey, one out of every four Yemeni girls surveyed were pregnant. The survey noted that early marriage impacts a girl’s education, health, and living status.
Lene K Christiansen, UNFPA representative to Yemen, said that the aim of UNFPA’s State of World Population 2013 is to provoke a new way of thinking about tackling child pregnancy and to encourage a shift in the approaches of relevant programs. Rather than interventions targeted at girls, she espouses broad-based approaches that build girls’ human capital, protect girls’ rights and empower them to make decisions.
According to Christiansen, early pregnancies are more becoming common across the world, including in Yemen. These pregnancies occur more frequently among certain at-risk groups. Girls who are marginalized, girls who have no access to information and services, girls given little say in decisions affecting their lives and girls whose realities and futures are determined by others tend to show highest rates of early pregnancy.
“The impact of a pregnancy can be great on any adolescent, but especially on a girl who is 14 or younger. Very often it forces her to leave school. And a girl without an education is a girl who lacks the skills to find a job and build a future for herself and her family and to contribute to her nation’s development,” she added.
Christiansen considers adolescent pregnancy to be a manifestation of inequity, poverty, and beliefs that somehow girls deserve less in life than boys. Adolescent pregnancy belies a stance that girls are not entitled to enjoy basic human rights to education, to health, or to live free from fear of violence and discrimination.
“Adolescent pregnancy equals powerlessness. One of the worst forms of powerlessness is child marriage,” she said. UNFPA’s State of the World Population shows that nine out of ten pregnancies among girls under 18 occur within marriage.
Enabling girls to attend and remain in school is critical; the UNFPA report shows that girls who remain in school longer are less likely to become pregnant.
UNFPA representative to Yemen said that education prepares girls for future jobs and livelihoods, raises their self-esteem and status, and gives them more say in decisions affecting their lives, “We must socialize boys differently so they see girls as equal human beings who deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”
UNFPA report said that girls aged 10 to 14 are the most powerless and in need of support. For these very young girls, special actions should be taken early, during this critical stage of their development, to build their agency and protect their rights.
Regardless of the age, Christiansen said that we must confront child marriage, illiteracy, poverty and the other underlying forces that drive child pregnancy.
Building a gender-equitable society in which girls are empowered, educated, healthy and protected from child marriage, live in dignity and security and are able to make decisions about their futures and exercise their rights is essential, stated Christiansen.
Christiansen concluded her speech with the aphorism, “’’’.you cannot run on one leg.’ That’s a lesson for every country: by empowering girls, protecting their rights and helping them prevent pregnancy; we can make it possible for girls to realize their potential, to become equal partners in development. And with girls and boys are on an equal footing, all our countries may run with both legs.”