Breaking the cycle of teen pregnancy
published : 29 Mar 2023 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
writer: Chakorn Loetnithat
A 17-year-old mother called Nim made headlines in early March after she allegedly dumped her infant's corpse into a river, causing public outrage.
Last week, she was in the news again, with police admitting they could not find the body of her 18-month-old son and promising Nim would face criminal charges and likely end up in jail.
Society has already pronounced its judgement, however. The teenager was slammed as wicked, heartless, and a pitiful liar for reporting her baby missing, which sparked a search and media frenzy.
Few understand the excruciating struggles faced by destitute teenage mums who have no one to turn to.
When mainstream society condemns young pregnant women as sexually loose and abortion as a cardinal sin, it leaves those who keep their babies to struggle on their own.
Nim's tragic story is tragic but not a one-off. Baby abandonments in public spaces frequently make the news. Teenage mothers always get the blame, while few pay attention to men's lack of responsibility and the need for social welfare for struggling teenage mothers.
Moreover, the need for reproductive health awareness and sex education is essential. Without it, girls will miss out on opportunities for the rest of their lives due to unplanned pregnancies. And for impoverished girls, this often means their kids will remain trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Despite Thailand's adolescent birth rate having dropped to 24.4 per 1,000 pregnancies, which is half of what it was a decade ago, the number of teenage mothers has risen by roughly 139 per day, bringing the total to 47,378 in 2021. This is still high compared to other Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea. In Singapore, the rate of teenage pregnancies is just 2.6 per 1,000.
Adolescent pregnancies gravely affect girls' physical health. According to Unicef, maternal complications are one of the main causes of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years. Teenage moms are also highly vulnerable to stress from social stigma and a lack of family support. Also typical is postpartum depression, which can be fatal.
Teen pregnancies can also ruin girls' futures. Being forced to drop out of school, they lose their education and employment opportunities for life.
A study by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) shows that the opportunity cost of adolescent mums is much higher than that of their peers in the same 15–30 age group and social strata who are not afflicted by early childbearing.
The findings show that teen mothers surrender 2,811 baht a month in lost opportunities on average. For adolescent mothers who are school dropouts, the opportunity cost jumps to 4,582 baht a month.
However, if they return to school and complete their education, this will drop significantly to 646 baht per month, demonstrating the need for them to continue their schooling.
The above numbers are just low financial estimates of the lost opportunities caused by early motherhood. If the income gap between high school and university graduates widens, the cost for teen mums will increase accordingly.
According to estimates, an adolescent mother loses an average of 1,400 baht per month. However, over their lifetimes, teen mothers in Thailand will have lost a combined total of 172,993 million baht.
Such is the opportunity cost of having children early, which also highlights the importance of education as their way out.
In addition to income losses, a 2021 study by the Bureau of Reproductive Health at the Public Health Ministry also showed a strong intergenerational impact of teen pregnancies.
This pregnancy surveillance report revealed that daughters of adolescent mothers (aged below 18 years) have a 33% chance of getting pregnant in their teens, too. The percentage is lower for mothers who got pregnant over the age of 18.
The study confirms the opportunity cost that young mothers must bear. It shows that 28.6% of teen mothers have a monthly income of 5,000-10,000 baht while 26.4% of them do not have any income at all.
There is no doubt that their offspring's development will suffer while the continued cycle of poverty will have significant and long-term social and economic repercussions for the nation.
Currently, policies concerning early pregnancies and motherhood are divided into three stages. The first stage focuses on preventive measures, which include educating teenagers on reproductive health and life skills to avoid risky situations.
The second stage provides support for pregnant teens. This includes access to a network of organisations such as the 1663 Hotline, the R-SA doctors network for legal and safe abortion, and the Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS).
The third stage focuses on post-delivery intervention to prevent repeated unplanned pregnancies and to assist teen mothers in returning to the education system, a crucial step to minimising their opportunity cost that may otherwise last their whole life.
Apart from maintaining these measures, the government should also broaden the range of universal welfare programmes to reduce the financial strains on teen mothers and provide better care for their babies.
The Child Support Grant for children under six years is a case in point. Currently, only low-income mothers qualify. However, a TDRI study found that 30% of low-income families are left out as a result of screening and registration mistakes.
The solution is to provide coverage to all children under the age of six, which will automatically benefit teen mothers and address the problem of teen pregnancy.
The TDRI study also demonstrates how the child support grant substantially enhances children's access to healthcare and nutrition. Since the grant gives mothers more control over household finances and increases their likelihood of breastfeeding, it benefits both mother and child.
Teen pregnancy is a complex issue rooted in social disparities and gender inequality. Treating it as moral degradation is not a solution. Empowering young mothers with access to education, jobs, and a universal welfare system is. Blaming cannot solve the problem. Empathy and support, however, can make a big difference.
Chakorn Loetnithat is a researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
- teen pregnancy