Recent surveys suggest that 3% of young women in developing countries give birth before the age of 15. Comparing data for the period 1990–2008 and 1997–2011, this figure thankfully represents a decline of around 1% globally. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the drop is mainly due to a decrease in the number of very early arranged marriages, partly because the dangers of childbirth for young girls are now more widely understood.
Even so, in many countries and particularly in remote and rural regions, underage marriages remain common. Speaking to the Guardian, a spokesperson for the UN population fund (UNFPA) which has recently released a report entitled ‘Motherhood in Childhood’ explained “many countries have laws against child marriage, but they don’t enforce them.”
In Laos for example, it is still common in remote regions for teenagers of 14 and 15 (or even younger) to marry and start having children. This helps to explain the country’s high adolescent birth rate; nearly one out of ten Laotian girls give birth between the ages of 15 and 19, and in rural areas this number is even higher.
Encouraging youngsters to stay on at school
In one of its press releases, the UNFPA highlights the story of a couple from a rural village who married when they were young teenagers. Acheu’s parents did not object to the marriage, even though it meant their daughter dropping out of school in the third grade. Now, at the age of just 17, Acheu has two children. She and her husband would like to wait before having a third baby, but they have no knowledge of modern contraceptive methods. Living off the land is proving a struggle for the young couple and Acheu admits that if she had stayed on at school, they could have got jobs. “We’d both like to go back to school,” she says, “but it isn’t possible now.”
Encouraging and enabling girls to stay on at school is one of the key ways of reducing pregnancy among adolescents, according to the UNFPA report. To increase school enrolment in poor regions, the government of Laos recognises the need to improve education in ethnic communities and reduce any linguistic and cultural barriers to children attending. The Minister of Education and Sports in Laos commented “we have to improve primary education and secondary schools to the point where everyone sees that education can really lead to better livelihoods and living conditions”.