Mary Beth Powers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Instead of chocolates or flowers this Mother’s Day, many young mothers in developing countries would probably prefer getting their childhoods back.

Consider Rokeya, a teen-ager in Bangladesh, who has grown old beyond her years.

Taken out of school at 13 and forced to marry at 14, Rokeya became pregnant before her body was physically ready to bear a child. As aresult, she miscarried. Her husband quickly divorced her, leaving her alone and shunned by family members and friends.

Today, she says, if she had had only stayed in school, her life would be much different. “I would be like other girls who are going to school now and enjoying life,” she told one of my colleagues in Bangladesh recently.

(In keeping with Save the Children’s policy, Rokeya and all the female teens in this article are identified only by their first names.)

State of World’s Mothers 2004 Report

Throughout the developing world millions of girls like Rokeya are having children at a dangerously young age. According to Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers 2004 report, released yesterday, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in the developing world.

The overall numbers are staggering. An estimated 70,000 teen-age girls die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth and an estimated 1 million babies of teen-age mothers die before their first birthday. Mothers and babies who do survive face enormous health risks and are likely to repeat the cycle of poverty that often leads teen-age girls to become mothers in the first place.

Consider Abeba in Ethiopia. She married at 7, began having sex at 9 and become a widow at 12. “I do not want to remarry,” she says. “I do not want any man to come near me.”

The United States is not immune to these problems, especially in rural areas where education levels are low and poverty high. In one rural country in Arkansas, adolescent birth rates are higher than in 94 developing countries. Nationwide, adolescent birth rates have declined in the United States over the past decade, but they still remain much higher than in any other industrialized country.

The message that this year’s the State of World’s Mothers report sends is clear. Around the globe, societies benefit when children are not having children. So, how do we make sure that girls do not become mothers before they are ready?

Educational Access Is Key

One key is giving girls access to education.

Studies have shown when girls go to school, they are less likely to have babies at a young age. In Nigeria, only 7 percent of women with seven years of schooling gave birth before age 20, compared to 43 percent of those with no education. Thousands of miles away in Pakistan, the story is similar: 16 percent of women with seven years of education gave birth before age 20 compared to 54 percent with no education.

Education also helps young mothers learn what is best for their health and the health of their children.

Research has shown that educated mothers tend to use modern contraceptives to better plan their families. Every year, more than 10 million children under 5 die in the developing world. Access to voluntary family planning programs could help prevent many of these deaths by allowing women to delay and space their births at intervals that are healthy for them and their babies.

As many experts have pointed out, the No. 1 way for a developing country to raise its standard of living is to invest in girls’ education. However, an estimated 115 million primary school-age children worldwide are not in school and 60 percent of them are girls.

Asking U.S. to Expand Effort to Help Girls

Save the Children is asking the U.S. government to continue to expand efforts to open doors to school and health care for girls across the globe.

Working with the Basic Education Coalition, a group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to guarantee education for all the world’s children, Save the Children is joining the call for the U.S. government to commit more funding to global basic education by year 2006 and to expand support for child survival, maternal health and family planning programs. To address this issue in the United States, Save the Children is calling for more funds to support in-school and after-school literacy programs, especially in the nation’s most remote, rural areas.

There is no time to waste. Let’s celebrate this Mother’s Day by taking steps to make sure that it is a healthy and joyous occasion for all mothers and children around the world.

Mary Beth Powers, senior reproductive health advisor, leads Save the Children’s strategy, policy and planning efforts on women’s health in developing countries.

For more information:

Save the Children–
“State of the World’s Mothers 2004”:

Basic Education Coalition: