This is part of a series of stories on topics that are underreported in global health and development.
Women’s health tends to fall into two predominant categories when it comes to the big global health and development organizations: child health, and maternal health. But women’s health is much broader than taking care of young girls, and then picking up again once those young girls have become mothers. There is a critical gap in the health care of young adolescent girls.
“Yes, women and children are important. But the group that has been neglected the most are youth, adolescents,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, said to a small handful of journalists during United Nations Week.
“We continue to see child marriage in so many countries,” Chan said, bringing up the recent example of an eight-year-old girl in Yemen who was forced to marry a 40-year-old man and died on their wedding night of internal injuries and bleeding. Indeed, child marriage and early childbearing are factors in the depressed status of adolescent women in counties like India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, UN experts say.
Roughly 16 million adolescent girls become mothers annually, according to the World Health Organization, with most of those happening in the world’s poorest countries. In the poorest countries, complications from adolescent pregnancy and birth is one of the top causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 years, according to the WHO. Prioritizing equality and well-being for girls and women means many things, from ensuring access to education to awareness and provision of reproductive health care including access to contraceptives for girls before they become mothers, so that they can control their own family planning.
As the Girl Effect movement worldwide has shown, empowering girls is a huge driver of economic growth and poverty reduction. Health education is a pivotal part of that process. And the inverse is also true: if a girl is denied an education and becomes a mother when she is still an adolescent, data suggests that a generations-old cycle of poverty and disempowerment will continue.