When a girl has self-belief and is supported by her family and community; when she’s empowered with skills, ideas and knowledge; when she has access to services, role models and other girls: when she is visible and vocal – she can demand to stay in school, to get healthcare, and to get married and have children when she chooses.
This week I was faced with a piece of information that made me despair. The statement of a country leader that they would not allow teenage mothers to return to school to continue their education after the birth of their child.
Pregnancy during adolescence has been associated with school drop out among girls in developing countries for many years. In Tanzania, girls are often expelled from school when they are found to be pregnant. According to a 2013 report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, over 55,000 adolescent girls were either forced to drop out or were expelled from schools because of pregnancy between 2003 and 2011. Although their research “revealed no national-level law, regulation, or policy explicitly requiring the expulsion of pregnant students”, they found a widespread belief among teachers, school administrators and education officials that this practice is required by law. Expulsion from school has a big impact on the lives of these girls. It decreases their likelihood of earning a good income. They are also often faced with stigmatization by their peers, parents and wider communities.
When girls are healthy and their rights are fulfilled, they can go to school, learn and gain the skills and resources they need to be healthy, productive and empowered adults – disrupting the cycle of poverty. In the last two decades, we have seen enormous advances in girls’ educational attainment at the primary level. However, girls in most regions, particularly the poorest and most marginalized, continue to fall behind at the secondary level.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, especially gender-based violence and adolescent girls’ vulnerability to child, early and forced marriage, unintended pregnancy, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections impede girls’ educational aspirations.
Here are some of the facts…
- A significant proportion of girls become pregnant during the time that they should be in school: About 19% of girls in the developing world become pregnant before age 18, and about 3% become pregnant before age 15.
- This is not just a Tanzanian issue. About one-third of girls in the developing world are married. In South Asia, nearly 50% of girls are married before age 18, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 40% are.
- Not coincidentally, these are also regions where the gender gap is greatest between boys and girls at the secondary level.
- Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before age 18 than those with secondary or higher education.
- Girls with only primary education are twice as likely to marry early as those with secondary or higher education.
- Girls and boys often lack access to information and services that would improve their sexual and reproductive health and educational status. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Central and Southeast Asia, more than 60% of adolescents who wish to avoid pregnancy do not have access to modern contraception.
- Violence undermines access to school as well as learning. A recent nationwide study in Tanzania reported that three of every 10 Tanzanian females age 12 to 24 had been victims of sexual violence. Of these, almost 25% reported an incident while traveling to or from school, and 15% reported an incident at school or on school grounds.
By not allowing teenage mother’s to return to school after the birth of their child, a country is doing more harm to their economic prospects than good. Girls completing secondary school in Kenya would add US$27 billion to the economy over their lifetimes. If Ethiopian girls completed secondary school, the total contribution over their lifetimes is US$6.8 billion. If young Nigerian women had the same employment rates as young men, the country would add US$13.9 billion annually.
“Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality. It contributes to improved health and nutrition. It increases the chances of education for the next generation.”
― Nicholas D. Kristof,