Putting aside the politics of teen pregnancy, what does it represent to families? I think most parents (at least those like me who live in affluent countries or are in the upper echelons of other nations) would say we wouldn't wish it for our daughters first and foremost because it represents the loss of innocence, of youthful naiveté. By that I don't mean the kind of ignorance that leads people to trust scams, but that wonderful hopefulness that makes young people dream of being astronauts, artists or peacemakers (all the hopes I cherish for my daughter) — the kind of naiveté that allows you to fall madly in love the first time because the inevitable heartbreak is impossible to imagine. While none of us enjoys standing by during the painful parts of our daughters' journey into adulthood, neither would we want them to become adults without having had all those grand dreams.
Teen pregnancy represents the abrupt and unequivocal end of the time when all things are possible and the arrival of the cold, hard understanding that invincibility does not exist. It's the unambiguous end of "girlhood."
That's in this country (though there are certainly girls in this country who don’t believe that it’s realistic to dream big and that’s an important issue, too).
But in many societies, teen pregnancy is the desired outcome for a daughter. Once the body is ready, why wait? A girl's family arranges her marriage and she is expected to begin having children.
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There's a tendency to believe that we should not be mortified because this is their culture, who are we to judge. So we may feel it's unfortunate that there are societies where poverty in general is so bad there are no dreams of space flights or cures for cancer or fairy tale love. We may even lament that in many places, girls who are not from a rarified strata of their society don't have the opportunity to complete secondary school. We may understand that the lack of participation of women is possibly the biggest factor keeping the society from developing economically. But we don't view teen pregnancies as the same travesty as we do when the teen is American. And why not?
Because this girl's life choices are limited, anyway? Because if she finishes secondary school, she will marry and have children and she will have only delayed the inevitable? Because she's married and so we believe that her passage into adulthood and motherhood is somehow smoother and safer?
Then consider this fact. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide.
The more educated a girl, the more likely she is to space her children and fewer children leads to more economic stability for the family.
Countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that have high rates of child marriage are countries with high poverty rates, high birth rates, greater incidence of conflict and civil strife and lower levels of schooling, employment, health care. Conversely, East Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand that have successfully eliminated child marriage for the most part are characterized by economic growth.
Some of the biggest advocates against teen pregnancy — Salamatou Traoré, the Honorable Joyce Banda, Dr. Myriam Conejo Maldonaldo — never even use the phrase. Because where early marriage is common, "teen" as we know it, doesn't really exist. But "opportunity" does and for whatever reason, these women — though they come from societies that do not expect or generally allow much from the girls — became leaders. So they believe in the grand dreams of girls. As the mother of a 4-year-old daughter and a feminist, I know the importance of dreaming for our collective daughters. I wouldn't want that dream cut short by death or disease. So, whether we call it "early marriage" or "teenage pregnancy," let's work to give our daughters the future they deserve.