Combatting pregnancies among adolescents will take centre stage today as Rwanda joins the rest of the world in celebrating World Population Day, an annual event established by the United Nations to bring population issues to global attention.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) chose this theme in order to raise awareness about where and why teenage pregnancies happen, what the main challenges to tackling the problem are and how combined efforts of governments and development partners can make a difference.
"Depending on the opportunities or choices girls have during adolescence, they can begin adulthood as empowered and active citizens, or they can be entrenched in poverty, neglected and voiceless. It is unacceptable that in the 21st century, such divergent paths for girls can exist. We must pave the way for adolescent girls to achieve progress, peace and prosperity in their communities," said Cheikh Fall, the UNFPA country representative.
UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said the number of teenage girls giving birth is way too high.
"Pregnancy jeopardises the rights, health, education and potential of far too many adolescent girls, robbing them of a better future. About 16 million girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, and complications from pregnancy and child birth are the leading cause of death among girls in this age group, especially in developing countries," Osotimehin is quoted in a statement.
He said it is important to understand that adolescent pregnancies have implications far beyond the affected individuals.
"Adolescent pregnancy is not just a health issue, it is a development issue. It is deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, violence, child and forced marriage, power imbalances between adolescent girls and their male partners, lack of education, and the failure of systems and institutions to protect their rights," he added.
Together with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Osotimehin calls on governments worldwide to help address the problem.
"This sensitive topic demands global attentionm," Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement. He continued to identify three fronts that need to be part of the effort to tackle the problem: education, sexual and reproductive health services, and age-appropriate information on sex.
"When a young girl is educated, she is more likely to marry later, delay childbearing until she is ready, have healthier children, and earn a higher income. We must also provide all adolescents with age-appropriate, comprehensive education on sexuality. In addition, we must provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services that cover family planning and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV," Ban said.
No dropping guard:
However, governments should not stop at providing education, sexual health services and knowledge about sex. According to the UNFPA executive director, legislation is a necessary step in solving the problem:
"Breaking the cycle of adolescent pregnancy requires commitment from nations, communities and individuals in both developed and developing countries to invest in adolescent girls. Governments should enact and enforce national laws that raise the age of marriage to 18 and should promote community-based efforts that support girls' rights and prevent child marriage and its consequencesm" he said.
Problem on the rise in Rwanda:
The World Population Day in the country will be celebrated at several events jointly organised by UNFPA and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. The main event is a half-day celebration in Rubengera town in the Karongi, a district with a sad statistic. The district has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Rwanda.
In May, a report by the Gender Monitoring Office showed that in 2012 there were 522 unwanted pregnancies among girls between 10-18 years registered in several schools countrywide.
Karongi experienced 58 cases of unwanted pregnancies among young girls, the highest number in the country.
However, adolescent pregnancies are a countrywide issue. In 2005, 4 per cent of girls between the ages of 10 and 18 in Rwanda had given birth, while that number had risen to close to 6 per cent by 2010.
When releasing the findings back in May, Eugenie Kabageni, the deputy chief gender monitor in charge of fighting injustices and gender-based violence, said many teenage girls give in to sexual abuse because of poverty.
The first World Population Day was celebrated in 1989, as an outgrowth of the Day of Five Billion on July 11 in 1987, when the world population passed five billion. Last year, the world population exceeded seven billion people.