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By Nicole Bella, Matthias Eck and Constanza Ginestra
Early pregnancy has been identified as a critical driver of school dropout and exclusion, especially for girls. Twenty-five years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a landmark blueprint for women and girls’ rights, recognized this, calling upon governments to remove all barriers to accessing formal education for pregnant adolescents and young mothers. As we celebrate the anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, what progress has there been on this issue, and what remains to be done?
Globally, the prevalence of early pregnancy declined by one-third between 1995 and 2020, from some 60 to 40 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19. Yet, early pregnancy rates remain high in many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where, despite an overall fall over the past 25 years, rates remain at levels higher than the 1995 regional average in countries including Chad, Mali and Niger. Although it is still early to assess the impact of Covid-19 on adolescent pregnancy, restricted access to reproductive health services and increased vulnerability of girls at home due to confinement measures may also threaten the progress made.
The GEM 2020 Gender Report released last month looked at progress on protecting young mothers’ right to education since 1995 in three countries, Argentina, Sierra Leone, and the United Kingdom. In Argentina, the adolescent fertility rate fell from 61 in 1995 to 49 in 2018. In the United Kingdom, this rate has more than halved, declining from 42 to 18 between 1995 and 2017. Similarly, in Sierra Leone, the percentage of young mothers fell from 34% in 2008 to 21% in 2019.
Here are some of our core findings:
The probability of early pregnancy depends on region, education level and socio-economic status. In Argentina, 18% of the poorest fifth of women aged 15 to 19 were pregnant, compared with 3% of the richest fifth in 2011/12. In Sierra Leone, more rural teenagers (29%) than urban (14%) have early pregnancies, and teenagers from the poorest fifth of households (33%) are three times more likely than their richest counterparts (11%) to have children. The risk of becoming a teenage mother in the United Kingdom is nearly ten times higher for girls in the lowest than those in the highest social class.
Early pregnancy hinders girls’ education substantially. In Argentina, while 57% of young mothers had only completed primary and 38% had completed secondary school, only 4% had continued into post-secondary education. In Sierra Leone, 44% of adolescent girls with no education have already begun childbearing, compared with 17% of those with secondary schooling. Likewise, women with children before 18 in the United Kingdom are 20% more likely to have no education qualification by the age of 30 than other women.
Different contexts mean the three countries have taken different steps to address the issue. Forced exclusion during pregnancy has been a long-standing practice in Sierra Leone, rooted in social gender norms and cultural traditions. In 2010, the Ministry of Education issued a directive preventing pregnant girls from attending school and taking examinations, which became official in 2015 and remained operational until 2019. That year, the case was brought at the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of the West African States, where the ban was ruled discriminatory ordering its immediate lifting in December 2019. In March 2020, the government complied, overturning the 2010 ban and announcing two new policies focusing on ‘radical inclusion’ and ‘comprehensive safety’ of all children in the education system, which would take effect from the 2020/21 school year.
In the United Kingdom, attempts to tackle early pregnancy have prioritized cooperation between government departments. In 1999, the government launched the 10-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. This was the first comprehensive approach to address early pregnancy in the country, led by the national government and delivered at the local level. The initiative focused on a national campaign to raise awareness among young people and parents, support for young parents through childcare services and prevention mechanisms through comprehensive sexual education and access to contraception. A national and local structure was created to implement this strategy, including a national Teenage Pregnancy Unit established with cross-government funding and consisting of a team of civil servants and external experts also drawn from the non-government sector.
Argentina, meanwhile, enacted laws and programmes to ensure young mothers’ access to education including Law 25584 in 2002 and Law 26206 in 2006. Local and provincial governments then took the lead to enable pregnant girls and adolescent parents to return to school. In 2008, Buenos Aires Province in collaboration with UNICEF, introduced the programme Salas maternales: madres, padres y hermanos/as mayores, todos en secundaria, which established nurseries or kindergartens in or close to school. Similar programmes are also implemented in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and in Tucumán province.
Addressing early pregnancy also calls for comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). Global evidence shows that CSE can help young people choose to delay having sex, reduce the frequency of unprotected sexual activity and increase the use of protection against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
In Argentina, 83% of female and 74% of male secondary school students reported in 2017 that the subject they would most like their school to address was sexual and reproductive health. CSE has been compulsory in public and private schools in all educational levels since 2006. However, 14 years into the programme, provision in schools is still incipient and partially implemented in 17 out of the 23 provinces. In four provinces with the highest early pregnancy rates, CSE legislation is not available in any form.
In 2008, the Sierra Leone government stopped providing CSE in schools. Ten years later, the National Strategy for the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancy and Child Marriage (2018-2022) was launched aimed at working jointly with politicians and religious leaders, providing mandatory CSE in teacher training and developing CSE packages for students and all school staff. Despite these measures, knowledge about and accessing contraceptives continues to be a considerable challenge. As of 2019, the number of married and sexually active 15-19-year-old females using contraceptives dropped to 14% from 20% in 2013.
In the United Kingdom, the 2017 Children and Social Work Act introduced compulsory relationship education in primary schools and mandatory relationships and sex education in all secondary schools from September 2019. Statutory provision was expected to start in September 2020, with guidance applying to all schools. The guidance obliges schools to increase the time spent teaching about menstrual health and informed consent, addresses risks related to social media and the internet and outlines what pupils should know at the end of each schooling level.
Holistic measures are the most effective. Our analysis showed that, although laws protecting young parents can be found in many countries, in most cases, it is unclear how these interventions are executed in schools. Measures to address early pregnancy often forget the need to challenge established gender norms. Most interventions address only female students, while the issue of early paternity remains invisible. This reinforces traditional gender stereotypes and poses an extra burden over girls who see their right to education compromised. Any effective approach to help young mothers continue to access their right to education must be holistic. Without doubt the call for their rights to be protected back in 1995 needs to be reiterated as the next version of the Beijing Declaration is compiled at the Generation Equality Forum next year.