The teen pregnancy conundrum

One Facebook hashtag last month stirred up an uneasy feeling: #ICanF***ICanRaise. The sentence accompanied a photo of a girl in a revealing crop top, her hands on her swollen belly. She sports a bob haircut typical of students in Thai government schools. She is 15, and she’s pregnant.

“There’s no shame in being a teenage mum,” she added in the caption.

With that hashtag, the debate on teenage pregnancy and its possible social implications has returned to the fore.

“You said raising. But who exactly will do the raising? Your parents?” Kod-HowV3 Facebook page responded to the original post of the girl. “No surprise you’re pregnant being all horny like that. I worry for the future generation,” another man commented.

For some people, teen pregnancy is a sign of moral decadence. To others, it is a consequence of many other social ills, from poverty to poor sex education and a rise in school dropouts. It also implies other thorny issues, moral, medical and legal, such as child mortality and abortion. Amid the backlash thrown at the hashtag girl (who didn’t respond to our contact), there are also those who sympathise with her and praise her for “at least choosing to raise the baby instead of opting for abortion”.

“If I’m pregnant, it’s wrong. If I get an abortion, it’s wrong. Unless this happens to you, you would never understand,” said teen mom Supichya Singhakasem, who also appeared on a television show to talk about the issue.

It’s true that women in earlier generations were starting families at age 15 or 16, but in those days mortality rates among mothers and newborns were much higher than today, said Adolescent and HIV/Aids Officer at Unicef Thailand Sirirath Chunnasart.

“Low birth weight, premature labour, complications related to labour — these can have long-term effects on the health of teen mums and their children. Also, the problem doesn’t lie only in health issues but also in many other things. Higher dropout rates among pregnant girls is one of our concerns. With no education, economic prospects are at risk,” Sirirath said.

Teenage pregnancy refers to pregnancy in girls under 20 years of age, usually from 15-19. At this age the female body is not fully developed for childbearing and labour, according to Sirirath, and hence the physical complications among adolescent mothers.

“Quality of life in the population is another concern,” the Unicef officer said. “The population’s quality of life is what determines the growth rate of the country. If impoverished teen mothers are excluded from the education system, they’ll miss out on job opportunities in the future and fail to contribute to the economy.”

Breaking the cycle

Data compiled by the Ministry of Public Health shows that in 2015 and 2016, on the national scale, 51 out of 1,000 females aged 15-19 become a teenage mum. But this ratio varies according to socioeconomic conditions of a teenager’s family. In well-to-do families, only 12 out of 1,000 teens become a mother during adolescence while in underprivileged families, the ratio spikes to 82 per 1,000. It means that children and their young mothers, without access to higher education and career opportunities, may perpetually be stuck in poverty.

Poverty is not just a household problem. It can impact the nation on a larger scale, especially on the quality of future populations at the onset of an ageing society trend and decline of overall fertility rates. Statistics show that in 2015, from a total of 679,602 newborns, 104,289 babies were born to teenage mothers. This means in the year 2015, 15.3% of all babies born in Thailand belong to teen parents, up from 12.9% in 2003.

Dai, an 18-year-old mother from Chiang Rai, shared her experience of having a baby when she turned 17. Her pregnancy wasn’t an accident — as what most people assume about teen pregnancy — but a decision influenced by the mother of her boyfriend.

“She wanted her son to have a baby for her,” said Dai.

“Each family has a different view on this matter. In my case, my boyfriend and I decided to have the baby. But because my parents died when I was young, I had to raise her by myself, and it was very difficult.

“I stopped going to school. The only income comes from my boyfriend, who now works in another province. But if I could choose I would want to continue studying, graduate from high school and find a good job to sustain my family.”

Gingkarn, a female college student who’s raising a baby, shared her experience of unplanned pregnancy while her toddler ran around a flat in Din Daeng.

“Initially, we used protection. But then one day, the both of us were drunk and we did it. My boyfriend told me to go buy an emergency birth control pill the next morning. However, I woke up in the evening and it was too late then,” said Gingkarn.

She never thought about having an abortion. “My mother raised her two children by herself after my father left us,” said Gingkarn.

“If she could do it, I could too. One of my friends had an abortion because she wasn’t ready. She said she wanted to continue having fun. For me, I don’t see the baby as a burden. Who knows, in the future he may be able to take care of me instead.”

Prevention through education

Judging teenagers who get pregnant, either intentionally or not, is not helping them. The hashtag #ICanF***ICanRaise may be shocking, but it’s the tail end of a larger problem that concerns more than just one girl.

To tackle the problem effectively, Unicef stresses the need to look at the root cause of it: poverty and social inequality. “Also, we must increase access to contraceptive services and maternal care. Teen and young adult clinics provided by the Ministry of Public Health must be youth friendly — the opening time and confidentiality must accommodate the teenage patient,” said Sirirath.

Age-appropriate sex education is of crucial importance and should be implemented simultaneously.

In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, comprehensive sex education is vital in effectively preventing cases of pregnancy among teenagers. Additionally, it has also led to lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Thailand faces an even bigger challenge: the attitude that sex is a shameful topic that shouldn’t be discussed with youngsters.

“Society still views the teaching of sex education as a double-edged sword. The Thai proverb goes, ‘pointing out a hollow for a squirrel’, meaning to mention something that evokes the youngsters’ curiosity and can lead to them wanting to try the experience,” Sirirath said.

As a result, most sex education courses in Thai schools tend to be more theoretical and students’ knowledge on sex is ambiguously measured through multiple-choice examinations. Few schools take a practical approach to sex ed, like fitting a condom onto a cucumber or teaching students how to take birth control medication.

“I actually saw a condom for the first time when I was in university after my friends bought some,” said a female college student.

“Most handbooks don’t give lessons on contraceptives. Rather, they only tell us to say no to having sex,” another student said.

For Dai, the Chiang Rai teenager, her best education is experience. She chose to have a baby, and the hardship of raising her child is compounded by the stigma associated with young mothers who’re often viewed as irresponsible.

“I won’t leave my baby. I have to do everything to raise him,” she said. “If you’re dating a boy, don’t be a thrill seeker. Use birth control pills and condoms. If you don’t want people to look at you with disgust.”