During a conference held in Kigali on International Women’s Day, one of the key speakers expressed concern about teen pregnancy. Many girls in developing countries are said to become mothers before the age of 18, due to multiple factors. In Rwanda, it is much less than other Sub Saharan countries due to efforts and measures undertaken by the government. But still it remains an issue of concern.
In human beings, a teenage pregnancy does not remain a simple biological fact. It initiates a string of physical, mental, social and financial problems.
Most adolescents become sexually active before they are 18 years old. This happens globally, though for different reasons. In underdeveloped countries, where education and careers are considered only for boys, girls are married early in adolescence. Poverty, large families, alcoholism, ignorance, are some other factors responsible for it. In the developed western world, sexual permissiveness, drug addictions, and etcetera, are factors responsible for many teenage girls indulging in sex and getting pregnant. At times, innocent gullible teenagers are exploited by male friends/ relatives and become pregnant.
Whatever the reason, teenage pregnancy is a health issue and a cause for concern.
Teen-age is the growth of the body physically. Thus, the nutritional needs of a young girl are increased. Failing to meet the demands of the body for increased nutrition, poses a risk for developing anaemia and softening of the bones, resulting in body pains. During pregnancy, there is also additional demand for nutrition. This, if not met, exposes both mother and child to risk of malnutrition.
Teenage girls are vulnerable to HIV and other sexually acquired infections due to ignorance and negligence. Thus, if they become pregnant, there are chances of abortion or a baby being born with complications.
Teenagers who smoke or drink put their unborn babies at risk of being underdeveloped with physical and mental abnormalities.
Due to mental immaturity and lack of experience, a pregnant teenager usually does not understand the need for regular antenatal check-up. Thus, she may miss getting valuable counselling, check-up and necessary injections, like for prevention of neonatal tetanus.
Maternal illness is more common with teenage pregnancies. Rates of pre-eclampsia are much higher in teenage pregnancies than with older women. Prolonged labour is also more common with teenagers due to physical immaturity.
Due to these multiple factors, pre-term births, still births and low birth weight babies are more commonly born to teenage mothers. Many of these infants suffer from physical problems or need extensive special care, failure could lead to death. Those who survive may not get adequate care as needed because of the mental immaturity of the mother.
Thus, teenage pregnancy becomes a problem for the entire community. It augments maternal, foetal and infant mortality, leads to young women suffering from chronic anaemia and health related problems. It has social hazards too. A teenage girl is not proficient enough to take up the responsibility of a child. Mostly, these children are born out of wedlock and the father shrugs off his responsibility. In case of married couples (teen marriages), the father himself is physically and mentally incompetent to look after a child. The children born, unless cared for by other relatives, grow up to be physically and mentally weak.
Considering these risks, society has to discourage teenage pregnancies. People at community levels should be sensitised about this issue so that they do not marry their girls off before the age of 21, that is, the legal age of marriage. Growing girls should be provided with adequate knowledge of sexual and reproductive health.
If at all a teenager becomes pregnant, she should be counselled about the need for intake of adequate amount of nutritious food, avoiding alcohol and other substances which can harm the foetus. She should be motivated to attend pre-natal clinics and become mentally prepared for the forthcoming baby. Thus, a healthy mother and child can be ensured.
Dr Rachna Pande,
Specialist, internal medicine