Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.
A few weeks ago, a tiny resort community on the tip of Cape Cod found itself at the center of a national firestorm. Media descended in droves. People called the town “absurd” and “disgusting.” Even the governor of Massachusetts got involved.
The reason for all the outrage? The Provincetown School Committee announced a policy allowing school nurses to give condoms to any student that requested them.
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Since the policy included no cutoff for age, parents across the nation panicked, assuming that they would start passing out condoms to seven-year-olds like free candy. Within days, the superintendent apologized and the district changed the policy, clarifying that condoms would only be provided in “specific circumstances” to “age-appropriate” requests.
In some ways, the response is not surprising: Many parents just don’t want to think about their kids and sex. Not in the same sentence, and not in a school policy. Yet lost in the controversy was the fact that young people—both here and around the world—need more information about and better access to family planning, not less.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of American teens have had sex at least once. America boasts the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, and there are about 435,000 births to teen moms every year.
That’s only a fraction of the 13 million children born to teens each year across the world. Ninety percent of these births occur in the developing world, where sexual violence, forced marriages, and dangerous pregnancies are commonplace for too many teen and even pre-teen girls.
While child marriage has decreased globally, it remains common in rural and low-income areas in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In Ethiopia and some parts of West Africa, girls can be married as young as seven or eight. In Kebbi State, Northern Nigeria, the average age of marriage for girls is just over 11 years old. In Bangladesh, 45 percent of young women marry by age 15.
For these girls, having sex and bearing children almost always comes before they are physically or emotionally ready. They have little access to reproductive health information, and are often powerless to abstain from sex or even use contraception.
So children deliver children, often with tragic results. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women over the age of 20. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.
Young girls are also more physically susceptible to sexually transmitted infections, resulting in escalating rates of HIV and other diseases among women in the developing world.
These girls are in dire need of education—including information about sex, and how to access and use contraceptives. But in societies where most parents consider discussion about sex a taboo, they’re not getting it. In fact, in Uganda, where one in four girls has a teen pregnancy, a debate eerily similar to Provincetown’s is taking place. Concerns about age-appropriateness have limited sex education in primary schools, even though many kids in Uganda begin school later in life and these schools commonly have students as old as 17.
Henry Ntale, who runs a teen health center in Uganda, summed up the stakes in an interview with Inter Press Service: “Young people are too young to know, but again, they are too young to die. You rather let them know than let them die.”
Looking at it this way, the kids in Provincetown are lucky to have the school nurse to talk to, reliable information about sex and birth control, and condoms available should they need them.
If only something so outrageous were available to all.
Danielle Zielinski is a communications specialist at Population Action International. www.populationaction.org.