Early motherhood biggest killer of girls in developing world

Posted: 13 May 2004

Author: Caroline Preston

Pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls and young women aged 15 to 19 in the developing world, according to the fifth annual State of the World's Mothers report (2004) released by the aid agency, Save the Children.

Mother and child, Mali
Mother and child, Mali
Fatoumata, a 15-year-old in Mali, holds her newborn son Moussa. She was 14 when she got married and she has never attended school. Her husband is 27. Photo © Save the Children
"For too many young girls around the world, motherhood is a disabling tragedy, or worse yet, a death sentence," Mary Beth Powers, the group's reproductive health adviser, told reporters.

Approximately 70,000 teenagers die annually because of complications from pregnancy and childbirth, she said, and girls who do survive often struggle to overcome poor health, education and poverty.

"As for the babies of these young mothers, the prospects are just as tragic," Powers added.

Babies of teens are 50 percent more likely to die than those born to older women, the report says, and an estimated 1 million infants born to teen mothers die before their first birthday.

Nine out of the 10 countries where girls are most likely to have children too young - and where babies have the least chance of survival - are in sub-Saharan Africa. Niger, Liberia and Mali top the list, followed by Chad, Afghanistan, Uganda, Malawi, Guinea, Mozambique and the Central African Republic, according to the report's Early Motherhood Risk Ranking.

Bangladesh, Nepal, Yemen, Haiti, Nicaragua and Guatemala also recorded high rates of young motherhood and infant mortality.

Improving access to education, health care and income opportunities in these countries is critical to achieving the Millennium Development Goals of reducing child deaths by two-thirds and maternal deaths by three-fourths by 2015, according to the group.

Mothers who lack education are more likely to get pregnant, have higher rates of child and maternal mortality, be less knowledgeable about family planning and HIV/AIDS and be less prepared to care for their children.

Of the 115 million school-age children worldwide who do not attend grade school, almost two-thirds are girls.

"Many have told us that they would like to complete their education so they could be better mothers" but do not have the opportunity, said Powers.

The unmet need for family planning is estimated to be twice as high among adolescents as the general population. Thirty-six per cent of married teenagers in Nepal do not have access to family planning, and in Haiti that number is 58 per cent.

The report also recommends enforcing laws that govern the minimum age at which girls can marry. Most countries - even those at the bottom of the Early Motherhood Risk Ranking - have laws stipulating minimum age for marriage of 16 or 18, but enforcement is often lax.

The report also argues that providing girls with greater educational opportunities and access to health care is key to delaying childbirth and addressing this public health crisis.

The report found that adolescent birth rates are higher in the United States than in any industrialized nation, while maternal mortality rates are higher than in Canada, Australia and all Western and Northern European countries.

Source: UN Wire, 4th May, 2004.

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