Society’s role in teenage pregnancies

Nov 12 — It’s tough being a kid and growing up in today’s world. It’s almost Darwinian in the sense that you are expected to have the necessary life skills to survive despite the fact that your parents, teachers and family may not have taught you any to begin with. But you are expected to have them and survive anyway.

The environment you are born into really determines whether you are able to survive the first few decades of your life. Whether it is into the affluent neighbourhood of Damansara Heights, or into the middle class suburbia of Petaling Jaya, or the hard streets and back alleys of Chow Kit, the accident of birth either makes you rich or poor, able to have access to a good education or be married off because you are deemed not interested in studying.

All of this was very much on my mind during a recent discussion I attended focusing on teenage pregnancy in Malaysia and its causes. It seemed to me that young people are being thrown under the bus and being blamed them for not having life skills or the ability to make decisions such as preventing pregnancy or not having premarital sex. It is hard enough when you are an adult to make some of these decisions. Imagine if you are a 15-year-old girl being asked by a 24-year-old man to have sex.

Out of the 18,652 cases of pregnant children and teenagers between the ages of 10–19 years old who were recorded by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in 2011, 4,222 were unmarried while the rest were married. According to MOH data from January to July 2012, 10 teenage girls also lost their lives due to complications resulting from pregnancy.

It is easy for us to be outraged when we read of reports of babies found buried, dumped in garbage bins, abandoned at mosques or temples, and wrapped in plastic bags and left to die. We look for people to blame. We blame parents, teachers, the education system, pornography. We moan about the lack of religious and moral fibre. And ultimately our eyes and fingers fall upon the girls themselves.

These girls are victims of an environment created due to our continued neglect of issues relating to sexual health such as ensuring the availability of proper sexual reproductive health education and services.

There are too many policies which aim to punish and harm, and few which seek to help and provide necessary support for those in need. We have our priorities on backwards. We allow people who call for hatred, discrimination and abuse on people who are gay or lesbian to give speeches to our students at our schools but refuse entry to educators who talk about sex education and teach things like how to use a condom.

The exploding numbers related to teenage pregnancy is a direct result of our society's failure to acknowledge and address our blinkered views of sex. We continue to allow our personal religious convictions to dictate social, public health and education policies over proven, pragmatic approaches which work.

Imagine finding yourself to be pregnant at 16. We have created a hostile environment where young women who find themselves pregnant out of wedlock have very few places to turn to for help, support and shelter.

No government healthcare facility offers abortion services for unwanted pregnancies or even condoms and sexual health information for singles and unmarried couples. Sex education to our children comes in a confused cornucopia of conflicted and convoluted messages and is knee deep in moral and religious language.

We depend on blind luck for our young to know right from wrong in religious, moral and social norms. “When I grew up, I didn’t need all of this and I was still able to live, marry and have kids” is a frequently heard comment from detractors of sex education.

We tolerate and even encourage or impose underage or child marriages in the misguided and simplistic belief that marriage will solve all problems. The belief being a teenage pregnancy in marriage is a better thing than it being outside marriage. Hiding the problem seems to be a more accurate description.

Reality and pragmatism seem to have no place when dealing with issues of sex. Yet, we have so little tolerance for mistakes and are all too ready to judge and punish those who trip and fail.

Today, there are more girls and teenagers living in fear as a result of an unwanted pregnancy. Most of them cannot afford the necessary procedure and they will increasingly resort to unsafe abortions and DIY attempts to force a miscarriage. Sometimes this will cost them their lives. Some will carry their pregnancy to term and end up on the statistics of the Ministry of Health. There will be some girls who commit suicide.

The men responsible, on the other hand, will often go unpunished, unknown and unaccountable.

We need to summon the courage to provide relevant sexual reproductive health services for all and not just those who are married. Let’s not sacrifice our young women and girls on the altar of self-righteousness and misguided ideals.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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