In a new report about the state of motherhood around the world, United Nations officials note that tackling the issue of teen births is imperative to ensure the health and safety of young girls whose bodies aren’t ready to endure pregnancy. Although teen births are declining, there are still millions of girls under the age of 18 who give birth each year — and two million of them are younger than 14, which means they’re putting their health at serious risk.
But the UN Population Fund is also emphasizing that working to lower the number of teen births doesn’t mean that the girls who do become pregnant should be criticized or shamed.
“Too often, society blames only the girl for getting pregnant,” the UN Population Fund’s executive director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, notes in the report. “The reality is that adolescent pregnancy is most often not the result of a deliberate choice, but rather the absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control. It is a consequence of little or no access to school, employment, quality information and health care.”
In his statement introducing the new report, Osotimehin points out that when society jumps to assume that teen pregnancy is the girl’s fault, the efforts to address the issue will likely solely focus on changing girls’ behavior. But that’s not actually the most effective way to address the problem. Since adolescent pregnancies are typically more concentrated among poor, rural, and uneducated populations, any effort to decrease them need to work on those issues. Instead of changing girls’ behavior, it’s actually about changing the behavior of their families, communities, and governments.
“Adolescent pregnancy is a manifestation of inequity, poverty, and a belief that somehow girls deserve less in life than boys,” Osotimehin explains. “Adolescent pregnancy equals powerlessness.”
In order to transform the situation, then, the UN points out that power needs to be returned to girls. The Population Fund report recommends that girls should be educated, protected against child marriage and sex trafficking, retain their right to comprehensive sexuality education. There are goals for boys, too. Osotimehin’s statement implores communities to socialize boys to “see girls as equal human beings who deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”
But before we get to that point, Osotimehin notes, the girls who do become pregnant when they’re teens “need our support, not stigma.”
Although the United Nations’ report mainly focuses on developing nations, its major takeaways have big implications for the United States as well. The U.S. still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world. Although the teen birth rate has been steadily dropping, it remains stubbornly higher in areas of the country that don’t prioritize sexual health instruction.
And the United States certainly stigmatizes the teen girls who become pregnant. Even though many of them are subject to much larger structural issues that are out of their control — just as the UN’s new report points out — American society has created a culture that often simply blames girls for being promiscuous. Efforts to lower the country’s teen birth pregnancy rate don’t always address the root of the issue, like economic inequality or lack of access to health services. Instead, many of them shame teens for making irresponsible decisions and tell them that having a baby is incompatible with success.