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World Population Day 2013: 'Spotlight on Adolescent Pregnancy'

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) observes World Population Day every July 11. Established to celebrate important milestones in the development of humanity, each year the day also brings a different issue to the forefront. This year's theme addresses the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescent girls.

With 16 million girls under 18 giving birth each year, and 3.2 million having unsafe abortions, education and awareness on sexual health and decision-making become increasingly important.  In the developing world, 90 percent of pregnant adolescents are married, and not necessarily by choice. Niger has the highest rate of child marriage at 75 percent of girls under 18.

The executive director of UNFPA has called adolescent pregnancy a development issue, not just a health issue.

"When we devote attention and resources to the education, health and wellbeing of adolescent girls, they will become an even greater force for positive change in society that will have an impact for generations to come," stated UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

A recent UNFPA report on child marriage shows that girls living in rural areas are twice as likely to marry as their urban counterparts. It also shows that those with more education are more likely to marry later in life and have fewer children. Family wealth also has an impact on the incidence of child marriage with more than half of girls in the poorest households marrying before 18, compared to 16 percent among the wealthiest households. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest percentages of child brides - more than 60 percent of married young women currently aged between 20 and 24 - and the lowest rates of contraceptive use among those aged 15 to 19 - less than 20 percent.

UNFPA warns that if current trends continue 142 million girls will be married before turning 18 over the next 10 years, which more than doubles the current amount, with 50 million girls at risk of marrying before age 15. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among those aged 15-19.

"By Choice Not By Chance" a 2012 UNFPA report on the state of the world population links improved lowered reproductive risks for mothers and their children and lower fertility rates to better human rights overall, increased life expectacy, productivity, schooling and labor participation, which all lead to increased income levels for both men and women.

In March the U.S. Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, incorporating provisions for the worldwide prevention of child marriage, which affects 1 in 3 girls under 18 and 1 in 9 girls under 15 in the developing world. The law calls for the U.S. secretary of state to prioritize putting an end to child marriage as a matter of foreign policy and require U.S. ambassadors to report in detail on its prevalence in the annual human rights reports on the countries where they serve.

NGOs like Girls Not Brides, International Women's Health Coalition and ICRW, which fought hard to have the legislation passed since its inception as the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010, are carrying on their work to end this community-driven practice that furthers the cycle of poverty and condemns young girls to a lack of education and professional development and exposes them and their children to increased health and well-being risks.

Girls Not Brides has partnered with Catapult, a project-based funding platform, to support the efforts of individuals and organizations toward the reduction of the incidence of child marriage in local communities. With relatively modest funding goals, these projects represent grassroots efforts, such as Sujag Sansar's aim to train local watchmen and standard-bearers, journalists, police and clergy, empowering them to report on, enforce the ban on and encourage families to reject child marriage in the Dadu Districts of Pakistan.

Last year UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women established October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, calling for the enforcement of legislation to prevent marriage before age 18, improve equal access to primary and secondary education and support already-married girls through schooling, information and services and livelihood skills, among others.


Three successful intervention models operate in Thailand, Colombia and Uganda. In Thailand, an adolescent Reproductive Health Network with eight community-based organizations provides counseling and short-term family planning through a youth center in Mae Sot. Along Colombia's historically conflic-ridden Pacific Coast, Profamilia provides mobile health clinics to 10-24 year-olds. In the Gulu District in Uganda, the Straight Talk Foundation has established a youth center as well as home and school visit and media outreach programs. Adult objection and staff retention rates are challenges that face all three operations, with the Gulu center also experiencing low female attendance.