LAC: Poverty, Poor Education and Lack of Opportunities Increase Risk of Teenage Pregnancy

December 12, 2013

The region has the third highest teen fertility rate in the world and exhibits a slower decline in teenage pregnancies than other regions

GUATEMALA CITY, December 12, 2013 – Poverty, poor education, inequality and an inadequate ability to make decisions and control their own life plans puts girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) at greater risk of teenage pregnancy and early motherhood. This, in turn, is associated with lower educational, economic and job opportunities, according to a new World Bank report.

The “Teenage Pregnancy and Opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean: on Early Motherhood, Poverty and Economic Achievement” report points out that teenage pregnancy and early motherhood remain significant challenges for the region, despite advances in the educational and health indicators for women during the last decade and the growing female participation in the labor market.

LAC is the region with the third highest teenage fertility rate (72 births per 1,000 women between 15 and 19 years of age), below Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (108 and 73, respectively). In fact, most of the countries in the region appear in the top-50 list of countries with the greatest teenage fertility rates in the world; eight of them (Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama) rank in the top 40.

“Poverty and lack of opportunity are directly associated to teenage pregnancy and early motherhood, which can become impediments to women wanting to take full advantage of development opportunities,” said Luis-Felipe López-Calva, World Bank Lead Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean and part of the team authoring the report. “This represents a challenge for the region, even though teenage pregnancies have dropped around the world in the last ten years, in Latin America and the Caribbean that drop has been slower than elsewhere.”

While the annual reduction in the teenage pregnancy rate between 1997 and 2010 was 2.7 percent in South Asia and 1.6 percent globally, the annual drop in LAC was just 1.25 percent. In LAC, the four countries with the highest teenage pregnancy rates (Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras) reported the same rates between 2000 and 2010. The five regional countries with the greatest success in terms of reducing teenage pregnancy rates during this period were Colombia (-25 percent), Haiti (-23 percent), Costa Rica, El Salvador and Peru (-21 percent).

The report analyzes the risk factors associated with teenage pregnancy and highlights that teenage pregnancy rates are directly linked to poverty conditions and factors associated with inequality. Results suggest that those teens with more education, living in urban areas and belonging to higher income families have a lower probability of getting pregnant. Pregnant teens are more vulnerable and poorer than childless teens, this in part is explained by the fact that they belong to different at-risk groups.

An important risk factor is the lack of agency, understood as the freedom and ability a woman has to effectively choose her goals and make free decisions regarding her life plans. An teenage woman is more likely to get pregnant due to lack of agency (by following existing norms due to peer pressure, or by lacking the negotiating power necessary to make her partner accept the use of contraceptives). Moreover, access to information and education are key factors in the use of contraceptive methods.

The report also analyzes the consequences of teenage pregnancy. It points out that teen mothers are less likely to finish secondary education and that teen pregnancy reduces average schooling achievement, school assistance and working hours. Furthermore, the report shows a greater risk of maternal mortality, fetus death, child mortality, and suicide when the mother is a teenager.

“Teen pregnancy is relevant from the point of view of development because it’s a manifestation of lack of opportunity and because early motherhood can have implications in terms of encouraging the poverty cycle between generations, social exclusion and high social costs. Addressing this challenge will require better policies, designed to take into account the complexity of the situation,” added Lopez-Calva.

According to the report, evidence indicates that reducing inequality and generating greater opportunities for women can contribute to a reduction in the risk of teenage pregnancy and mitigate the effects of early motherhood. Social policies and programs that reduce poverty and gender inequality are crucial to this end.

Risk factors can also be addressed with policy interventions that focus on community education, health, and job programs. For example, the report points to evidence suggesting that an increase in school hours reduces teen pregnancy rates.

The report also indicates that the objective of these policies should be to expand the set of options available to women, as well as their ability to have an effective control over their lives —strengthening their agency— so that they can make economic and fertility decisions on the basis of the life plans dear to them.


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