Every day, 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth in low-and-middle-income countries, including India. That’s according to a new report from the United Nations’ Population Fund. It found that impoverished, poorly educated, and rural girls are more likely to become pregnant during their adolescence than wealthier and educated girls. For thousands of girls each year, teenage pregnancy results in death. Al Jazeera has covered cases from New Delhi on how attitudes to teenage pregnancy are changing. It cites the case of Neha Krishna, who is just 15, and gave birth to a baby boy. Being a mother is a blissful experience but for teenagers like Neha, it is life imprisonment. Neha expresses her regret saying, “I never had my childhood, and now I have a baby to feed and look after, all on my own.” The extent of mental stress cannot be imagined when a teenage girl in such a situation finds no option but to survive anyhow. What causes this issue to prevail?
Amidst the chaotic life of such teenagers, Anjana Matta, a social educator at Mamta Health Institute, New Delhi, has observed the issue closely. After the training and education programs led by Anjana, the cases of adolescent pregnancies have fallen from 60% to 15% in a slum of New Delhi. She says, “It is still a challenge to make parents understand why they need to avoid child marriages as it leads to adolescent pregnancies. It hampers the education of the girl that leads to higher dowries to have a literate husband. Instead, the parents think if they educate their girls, they have to find a more educated husband and would be bound to give even higher dowries.” Somewhere, the issue is deep-rooted and needs a focused attention towards social malpractice like dowry. Anders Thomasen, the Deputy Representative at UNFPA asserts, “If India manages to eradicate the issue of adolescent pregnancy, it would boost the economy of India by 12%“. This is how expensive this issue is. Yet, awareness and use of contraceptive methods as well as sexual rights remain limited in rural India.
Few ground realities are usually overlooked by NHFS surveys while assessing the respondent’s age. Rural areas are the most difficult when it comes to figuring out the age of a person. Most parents do not even know the date of birth of their children. They often mention a higher number than the actual age of girls or they don’t remember the age at all. If you ask the parents of a married girl her age, they very well know that below 18 it is illegal to get a girl married so they purposely misinform her age as 20 or 21. Around 12.8% of the girls, aged 15 years to 18 years in rural Bihar were already mothers or were pregnant at the time of the National Family Health Survey (NHFS), which is a huge population. Mahima Taneja, a senior research associate at Outline India, mentions a case of a teenage mother, who, when was asked why she got pregnant so soon, replied, “Baanjh bolenge sab log (everyone would call me infertile)!”
Swagata Yadavar, a principal correspondent at IndiaSpend expresses a valid concern over the political will to address the adolescents’ issues. To address the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, the Indian government in association with United Nations agencies introduced an adolescence-education programme (AEP) in 2005. Adolescent health featured for the first time as a national programme in 2006 under the National Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health Strategy (NARSHS), which included health clinics that offered preventive, promotive, curative and referral services for adolescents (10-19 years) and youth (19-24 years). However, within two years of inception, the AEP programme was banned in 12 states including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. The reason is that the graphics are not as per the Indian cultural values! A 2016 report by Population Council, an advocacy, shows the aftermath of under-estimating the issue and covering it behind cultural myths. The report says, more than 10,400 adolescents of age 15 to 19 who were surveyed, 14.1 % of the unmarried adolescent boys and 6.3% of unmarried adolescent girls have had pre-marital sex and among them, 22% boys and 28.5% girls had premarital sex before 15 years.
The major lack is in age-old mentality, not only in the rural areas but also in the educated seniors and education institutions who adamantly prefer cultural show-off against the needs and lives of vulnerable adolescents. The causes are varied — child marriage, lack of education, being forced to work, dowry, lack of political will, cultural myths, mindsets and mental health issues. That can only be dealt with vigorous mobilization, education, advocacy and sensitization. Lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood, a staggering 100 million in this delicate adolescent age of 15 to 18 have to suffer.
Johnson, Emmanuel. (2011). Adolescent Pregnancy in India: An issue of life and death. Journal of School Social Work. VIII. 28 – 32.
Mahima Taneja (Oct 22, 2017). Why India Ranks As One Of The Highest In The Number Of Reported Adolescent Pregnancies. Huffinfton Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2017/10/22/why-india-ranks-as-one-of-the-highest-in-the-number-of-reported-adolescent-pregnancies_a_23249896/
The Business Line. (July 27, 2018). They are girls and boys — not women and men — and they’re getting exploited. The Hindu. Retrieved from https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/specials/india-file/they-are-girls-and-boys-not-women-and-men-and-theyre-getting-exploited/article24534111.ece
Nidhi Bhatt. (2013). Shifting Attitude of teen Pregnancy in India. Al Jazeera. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9atwi4UU8M