27 March 2018: Asia-Pacific only region in the world where teen pregnancy is on the rise

An increase in teen pregnancies in the East Asia-Pacific over the past decade has prompted calls for an urgent new focus on teenage girls in Australia’s aid and development program. 

The revelation coincides with a new report released by development agency Plan International Australia today. The report, Half a Billion Reasons, is the first thorough analysis of issues facing teenage girls worldwide to be discussed with MPs in Canberra this week. 

Plan International Australia found the teenage birth rate for girls aged 15 to 19-years-old in low and middle income countries in the East Asia-Pacific has risen over the last 10 years, from 18 to 23 births in every 1000. This is compared to other regions where birth rates are falling, including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa.

Plan International Australia’s CEO Susanne Legena said the declining situation for teens in our own backyard should be a ‘wake-up call’ to politicians. 

“Complications from pregnancy and birth is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide,” Ms Legena said. “In Bangladesh, a region where child marriage is endemic, one in 10 babies are born to teenage mothers. In Papua New Guinea, that’s one in 20. Compare this to Australia, where teen pregnancy has dropped to an all-time low of just 12 in every 1000,” Ms Legena said. 

“When a girl becomes pregnant, she is usually denied her education, her childhood ends and she becomes more vulnerable to violence and poverty. Plan International has known for many years that until we focus our efforts on combating child marriage and early pregnancy, we will never break the cycle of poverty.”

Ms Legena said teenage girls were invisible in Australia’s current aid and development agenda and labelled funding for programs to achieve gender equality for girls aged 10 to 19 as “grossly inadequate”. 

“Plan International Australia is calling on politicians to recognise the unique challenges faced by the half a billion adolescent girls worldwide. Our report highlights an alarming lack of investment in and focus on teenage girls in Australia’s aid budget, Foreign Affairs White Paper and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Gender Equality Strategy,” Ms Legena said. 

“Teenage girls absolutely must have access to family planning services, and that includes contraception, information about sex and her right to make choices about her body and her future. None of this can happen unless it’s supported by good foreign policy that is adequately funded. 

“The past 18 months has seen a systematic winding back of girls’ rights around the world. Regrettably we’ve seen Trump’s Mexico City Policy have severe flow on effects for millions of girls and women worldwide who can no longer access life-saving family planning services.

“Our region is not immune. In Timor-Leste the previous government proposed a draft family planning policy bill that would restrict access to contraception to married women only, putting thousands of young women at risk of early pregnancy. In Papua New Guinea, a country where 22 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18, teenagers need parental consent to access family planning services.

“At this moment in time, adolescent girls are virtually invisible. They barely rate a mention in Australia’s new Foreign Policy White Paper. We need a concerted effort at a political and government level to catch up.”

Asia-Pacific countries with rising or alarmingly high teen birth rates

  • Fiji: Teen birth rates are slowly on the rise in Fiji, to 45.2 births per 1000. In Fiji, parental consent is required for people under 18 to access contraception. 
  • Cambodia: Cambodia’s birth rates are increasing dramatically. Teen birth rates have increased from 46 births in every 1000 in 2007 to 52 births per 1000 (5.2%) in 2015. Girls in rural areas are particularly vulnerable. The number of Cambodian mothers aged 15-24 years who did not receive an education more than doubled between 2000 and 2014.
  • Philippines: In 2000, the Philippines birth rate was 51.9 births per 1000 (5.2%). In 2015, birth rates increased to 62.6 births per 1000 (6.3%). A number of reasons for the soaring teenage pregnancy rates. The age of consent in the Philippines is 12. The Philippine’s 2012 Reproductive Health Law also makes it hard for community workers and public health advocates to reach teenagers. The law prohibits minors from accessing contraception without parental consent.
  • Bangladesh: Though Bangladesh has seen a slow fall in birth rates over the last 15 years, the number of girls giving birth remains extraordinarily high. In 2015, there were 82 teenage births per 1000 (8.3%). This is likely due to high child marriage rates in Bangladesh, where 59% of girls are married by the age of 18 and 22% are married by the age of 15. 
  • Papua New Guinea: Birth rates remain high in Papua New Guinea. In 2015, there were 54 births per 1000 (5.4%) to teenage mothers.