Boys are like “sticks on which fathers can lean,” girls are “leaves that could be carried off by the wind.” These are the words a young Ugandan woman used to describe how her community in the northwest of the country views girls. Spoken to ICRW during a recent research trip to identify the drivers of adolescent girl school drop outs there – including pregnancy – they vividly capture the many challenges she and her peers in her society face.
Such research is more critical than ever: according to a new UNFPA report
released this week, 20,000 girls under age 18 give birth in developing countries each day, meaning that 19% of girls in developing countries have been pregnant by age 18. The report also emphasized the need to focus more on young girls ages 10-14, who are often overlooked by policy and programs. Of the 7.3 million girls under 18 who give birth each year, two million of them are under age 15.
Adolescent pregnancy often perpetuates poverty and exclusion for young mothers. There are far-reaching impacts on health, education, and economic development for the mother, child, and the community as a whole. Health effects can be drastic; pregnancy is the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. For mothers that do not complete their education, their livelihood opportunities can be cut short. In turn, the impact on larger economies is huge. For example, according to the UNFPA report, if girls in India had been able to wait until their 20s to become pregnant, India’s economic productivity would have been $7.7 billion higher.
One of the underlying causes of adolescent pregnancy highlighted by the UNFPA report is gender inequality, the focus of ICRW’s research project in Uganda
. Nine hours away from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, lies the West Nile region, which has historically received less attention from the international NGO community. Yet they have some of the worst education statistics in Uganda – a country that also has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world.
Partnering with the Forum for Africa Women Educationalists (FAWE), ICRW is examining the causes of girls’ school drop-out rates, and how social norms influence pregnancy-related outcomes. With increased understanding of the issues on the ground, our research will eventually be turned into action by serving as the foundation for advocacy efforts to support policies and programs to help pregnant adolescents and young mothers stay in school, or return to school.
It is these types of programs that will give girls the chance to be girls again. They will help build support systems to help them overcome the challenges they face – and prevent their hopes and futures from being ‘carried off by the wind.’