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Here’s something I didn’t know a month ago: Latin America has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the world.

An estimated 15% of all pregnancies per year in Latin America occur in girls younger than 20 years old, and 2 million children in the region are born to mothers between the ages of 15 and 19.

According to a recent report – Accelerating Progress toward the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancy in Latin America and the Caribbean’, overall teenage pregnancy rates have “dropped slightly” over the past three decades. However, this is the only region where a rising trend has been observed in pregnancies among adolescents younger than 15 years old.

The report, written by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), states that teenage girls with only primary education or less are up to four times more likely than girls with secondary or higher education to have children. Similarly, girls from poor households are between 3 and 4 times more likely to become pregnant than girls from upper class households.  

Why is this so important? Because maternal mortality is one of the main causes of death among young girls between 15 and 24 years old in the region. In 2014, approximately 1,900 adolescents died as a result of complications during or after pregnancy and childbirth.

Earlier this year, a 14-year-old girl in Paraguay died during childbirth while her doctors performed an emergency cesarean section. The pregnancy had been a result of rape. Her case made international headlines only three years after a 10-year-old in the same country became pregnant, also as a result of sexual violence.

Explanations for high rates of teenage pregnancy provided in the report are poor quality sex education and the prevalence of child marriage. The report also highlights the fact that girls who get pregnant are more likely to drop out of school, which has a lasting impact on their future economic opportunities and their ability to support themselves and their children. This, combined with strong Catholicism that frowns upon having children out of wedlock, leads to social pressures for these girls to marry the father of their babies, regardless of circumstance. 

Limited access to information about reproductive health means that young girls often don’t have the information they need to prevent pregnancy or protect themselves from contracting diseases. However, this report also emphasises that young girls in the region need to be better protected from sexual violence, which not only has long-lasting negative effects on their mental health, but also forces unwanted pregnancies upon them. 

Another major barrier to education equality in Latin America is poor menstrual hygiene management. It is every girl’s nightmare to be surprised by her period at school, unprepared and without supplies, having to spend the day with a stain on her clothes until she gets home.

Lack of access to sanitary products and private toilets prevents girls from going to school during their periods and, in some cases, leads to them dropping out altogether. Thankfully, organizations like Be Girl are working towards removing periods as a barrier to opportunities by providing affordable, reusable sanitary products to girls in developing countries, including across Latin America. Their work is crucial to achieving gender parity in higher education throughout the world.

Reducing adolescent pregnancy rates in Latin America, as well as ensuring all girls have access to sanitary products, is crucial to closing the gender gap in education in the region and increasing women’s ability to support themselves economically in the future.  

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