11/04/2013 02:12 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

We Are the Girls, We Are the Children!

Kelly is a 24-year-old college student who has a 10-year-old daughter. Our daughters are classmates, so we know each other.

I was shocked when I first did the math and figured out her age. Once, she told me, "I went to my boyfriend's house one night. Nobody was home. Everything happened so fast. I didn't know what to do, and I was so scared. When I told my mom, it was too late..."

I feel for her and many other young mothers who have had unplanned pregnancies.

Kelly is not alone. Teen pregnancy numbers are high in the U.S., but recently they have gone down. According to 2012 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Adolescent Health, 305,420 babies were born to adolescent females ages 15-19. The Office of Adolescent Health's website says that "nearly 89 percent of these births occurred outside of marriage." On the other hand, the numbers show that in 2012, the teen birth rate declined by 6 percent compared with 2011, and the teen birth rate has been declining over the past 20 years. "Still," the website says, "the US teen birth rate is higher than that of many other developed countries."

American society is very aware of the issue, and there are many public services for parents and youth to help prevent teen pregnancies. However, nowadays, young girls in other countries are not as lucky as their American peers. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) released a report indicating that every day, 20,000 girls under the age 18 give birth in developing countries.

According to the UNFPA, "Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides. If current levels of child marriages hold, 39,000 girls daily will marry too young. Furthermore, of the 140 million girls who will marry before the age of 18, 50 million will be under the age of 15." Also, according to the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), child marriages in Turkey constitute 14 percent of all marriages.

So, in the big picture, worldwide teen pregnancies are not the only problem. The greater problem is child marriage. Maybe marriages at an early age are meant to protect girls' lives, but they ruin their lives instead. Not only is it a violation of human rights and keeps girls from receiving an education, but is also a significant factor in long-term health complications. Under-age brides are very vulnerable and they can suffer irreparable damage, if not death, after bearing children when their bodies are not fully prepared for pregnancy. UN statistics show: "Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries. Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90 percent are already married. UNICEF estimates that some 50,000 die, almost all in low- and middle-income countries. Stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent higher among mothers under the age of 20 than in women who get pregnant in their 20s."

In the International Business Times, Palash Ghosh writes:

High infant mortality rates across South Asia can be directly linked to girls getting married young and having early and frequent pregnancies, according to researchers at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. One in 14 births to youthful mothers (defined as being under 18) lead to the death of the child within the first year of life in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, the group said.

Early marriages put the lives of both young mothers and their children at risk. If these young girls do not have access to maternal healthcare, family planning options or sexual health education, they are more susceptible to death or illness.

According to a report from the UN's Children Fund (UNICEF), a great number of adolescents give birth in developing countries, and they are mainly girls with little or no education from low-income households in rural areas.

According to a UNFPA survey that took place in 2010, in 54 of the world's poorer countries, 36.4 million women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported having given birth before they were 18. Bangladesh, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and Niger are countries where early marriage is the most common.

Actually, child marriages are illegal in many countries, but often the law is not enforced. Also, unfortunately, it is an accepted practice in many cultures. They occur because women are powerless to stop them and men allow the marriages to take place. Fathers, village chiefs, and religious leaders, who have the privilege to make decisions in many communities, are male.
However, child marriages cannot go unpunished in the 21st century. Child marriages are a form of modern day slavery, and they have to end. Justice should prevail.

For more Arzu Kaya-Uranlı click here.
This article was previously published in Today's Zaman