Nearly a third of all women in developing countries begin childbearing at age 19 and younger, said UNFPA, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, in a report released on Tuesday.
“And nearly half of first births to adolescents are to children, or girls aged 17 and younger,” according to the UNFPA report.
While total fertility across the globe has fallen, the UNFPA report shows that women who began childbearing in adolescence had almost five births by the time they reached age 40 between 2015 and 2019.
“When nearly a third of all women in developing countries are becoming mothers during adolescence, it is clear the world is failing adolescent girls,” said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem. “The repeat pregnancies we see among adolescent mothers are a glaring signpost that they desperately need sexual and reproductive health information and services.”
After having their first child, additional childbearing in adolescence is common for child mothers. Among girls with a first birth at age 14 or younger, nearly three quarters also have a second birth in adolescence, and 40 percent of those with two births progress to a third birth before exiting adolescence.
According to the report, complications from giving birth are a leading cause of death and injury for adolescent girls. But being an adolescent mother can also lead to other grave violations of their human rights and serious social consequences, including child marriage, intimate-partner violence and mental health issues. The youngest child mothers face the highest risks.
Across the globe, there are “encouraging signs” of declining levels of motherhood in childhood and adolescence. But the pace of decline has been alarmingly slow — often by only about three percentage points per decade, according to UNFPA.
“Governments need to invest in adolescent girls and help expand their opportunities, resources, and skillsets, thereby helping avoid early and unintended pregnancies,” said Kanem. “When girls can meaningfully chart their own life course, motherhood in childhood will grow increasingly rare.”
The report lays out recommendations for policymakers, including the need to provide girls with comprehensive sexuality education, mentorship, social support, and quality health services. It also suggests providing families with economic support and engaging local organizations within a supportive policy and legal framework that recognizes the rights, capacities and needs of adolescents, particularly marginalized adolescent girls.