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Saundra Pelletier Headshot

How We Can Stop Failing the World's Girls

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The UNFPA recently released a report called "Motherhood in Childhood," providing more concrete and stark evidence that girls are being compromised -- globally, and particularly in the developing world. Let me start off by giving you some facts from the UNFPA report. There are over 580 million adolescent girls in the world. Four out of 5 of these girls live in developing countries. Ninety-five percent of the children born to adolescent mothers are born in developing countries equating to roughly 7.3 million births annually, two million of which are born to girls under the age of 15. If this wasn't alarming enough, the problem is projected to get worse -- much worse in fact. So much so that by 2030 we could see these rates increase anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.

So what's driving this? How can we be failing so many young girls in so many places? Unfortunately, there is no single cause. In fact, there is a wide range of issues that are responsible for this problem, but one of the more obvious triggers has to do with social customs that encourage young children, young girls, to get married and have children. I have seen this up close. I have seen the burden of arranged marriages and exchange marriage practices, like atta-satta, that place girls at an enormous disadvantage. These unions often lead to incomplete or interrupted secondary education, significantly limiting the ability of girls to secure the skills necessary to establish their own economic independence. Add in a high incidence of poverty, national laws preventing girls from accessing family planning products and cultural inequities and an already difficult situation becomes tragic.

There are no quick and easy remedies -- no obvious answers, but there are opportunities. Obvious opportunities, from my vantage point, come in the form of sexual education and improved healthcare delivery -- both of which can help raise awareness of and access to contraception. I'm an avid believer in education and access. The work we do at WomanCare Global is proof of that.

We know that increasing the availability and reliability of contraception improves the lives of women and girls. Contraception allows a woman to determine the timing, spacing and total number of children she will add to her family. It allows her to finish her education, obtain and maintain a vocation and make her own life plans. Contraception allows her to have children on her own terms -- when she is ready. And by doing so, she is helping to ensure that every child is a wanted child -- that no child is born at the expense of her mother -- and that motherhood doesn't come at the expense of childhood.