The Toll of Teen Pregnancy and Childbirth in Africa

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Of course Liberia isn't the only place where it's common for very young women to become pregnant and give birth, or where complications and even death in childbirth are common. Agnes Odhiambo is a women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Nairobi, Kenya. She says the stories from Liberia are all too familiar.

Agnes Odhiambo: Very familiar. Teenage pregnancy is an issue of pandemic proportions in Africa. What is happening in Liberia is not very unique to Liberia, it's a problem that we are facing in very many countries in Africa.

Schachter: And why is this an issue that you are so focused on, with all the issues of women's rights in Africa?

Odhiambo: Well, first of all it's because that teenage pregnancy is really an issue that has very serious negative consequences for girls, for the development of communities, and for the development of countries. If I can just talk a little bit about the health aspects. Young girls who get pregnant, they have a higher chance of getting obstructed labor which can cause death of the mother and the infant, or it can lead to for example obstetric fistula which really is a devastating injury.

Schachter: Now given those grim statistics there is some good news. Just in May the U.N. reported that the number of deaths worldwide due to pregnancy or birth decreased by almost 50% over the past 20 years. That is good news, no?

Odhiambo: Well it is good news, but still the news is not very good in Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, where most countries have made very little progress or no progress at all, and even within Sub-Saharan Africa the differences are huge. So still it is a major problem.

Schachter: And what are some examples of the national differences between the countries?

Odhiambo: So for example, the recent statistics show that in Africa only three countries are on track to reduce maternal death by 75% between 1990 and 2015, and that is Egypt, Cape Verde and and I believe Eritrea. You've got about 20 countries that are making some progress and then the rest of the countries have made insufficient progress or no progress at all. In Kenya for example the number has gone up. In South Africa, the same case, the number has gone up.

Schachter: What is the root of this problem? Is it education? Is it social? Is it a lack of money? Where does this come from?

Odhiambo: It's a whole host of things really that contribute to maternal mortality. You have to look at it from the problems that women face right from when they are girls. So we are looking at issues of lack of sexual education for young girls so that teenage pregnancy is very high. The also harmful traditional practices such as early marriage, where in very many African cultures it is okay for a girl to get married the moment she reaches puberty. Then poverty is a big problem, poverty in the sense that women are not able to access healthcare. Governments are not providing adequate healthcare.

Schachter: Now from an American perspective a lot of what you have found is shocking frankly. The age at which girls are giving birth and getting married. Is there anything that you've found especially shocking when you've gone out to do the interviews that you've done?

Odhiambo: Oh, there are quite a number of shocking things. It is quite shocking when you speak to a 16 year old girl who tells you that she got pregnant but she had no idea she would get pregnant. She had sex, it was unprotected sex, but she had no idea that she would get pregnant, you know. So that's quite sad for me as an African woman as well. And then it's also really shocking to find 12 year old girls as I found in South sudan, who are already married and with children, and the society does not see anything wrong with that. In fact this is encouraged in their societies. The younger you get married the better because then they believe you can produce more children, but ironically it is the same childbearing process that is killing these women and children, and we really don't think that is a serious issue.

Schachter: Agnes Odhiambo is a researcher on women's rights in Africa, for New York based Human Rights Watch. Ms. Odhiambo thank you for talking to us

Odhiambo: Thank you for having me.