Millions Of Girls Become Mothers Before Turning 14

Despite being allegedly raped by her stepfather, an 11-year-old girl in Paraguay gave birth on Thursday after she was denied an abortion by the country's staunch anti-abortion policies. In the Latin American nation, even in cases of incest and rape, abortions are strictly illegal, and obtaining one or self-terminating can result in up to five years in prison unless the government rules the birth would be a threat to the mother's life. The Paraguayan girl's plight scandalized her nation, and international powers and organizations expressed outrage at her forced pregnancy, resulting in national protests against the country's draconian laws and formal inquiries and rulings by the Inter-American Commission On Human Rights. But as disturbing as her case is, it actually isn't a rare one. Across the world, girls between ages 10 and 14 often give birth and in shockingly high numbers, particularly in countries with anti-abortion policies that closely resemble Paraguay's.

According to CNN, 684 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 gave birth last year in Paraguay alone. And while that's certainly a disturbing number, it's a mere fraction of the 2 million underage girls who gave birth in developing countries in 2013, according to United Nations numbers. The UN also reported that 70,000 adolescents in developing countries die every year from birth complications. The young pregnancies are typically the result of circumstances that are beyond these girls' control, according to UN Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin. "It is a consequence of little or no access to school, employment, quality information, and health care," he said, in a statement released with the report.

Little or no access to health care certainly contributes to the number of adolescent pregnancies, but sometimes the situation is beyond any type of preventative care, such as when a pregnancy is born out of rape. That's why the lack of abortion access and the denial of girls and women's autonomy over their bodies by their governments is so crucial. In other Latin American countries like Peru, Venezuela, and even Mexico, abortion is strictly illegal, except in the case when giving birth is a direct threat to the mother's life. In countries like Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, abortions are illegal under all circumstances.

The shockingly high numbers of underage mothers in developing nations reflect the dangers of anti-abortion policies that provide no exceptions. Most of these pregnancies aren't by choice, as these children are often victims of rape and incest. Even in countries that provide exceptions, being too young isn't enough of a defense to terminate the pregnancy, as the 11-year-old in Paraguay proves. An exception rule is rendered meaningless if a government is so staunchly anti-abortion to begin with.

As dismaying as it is that this Paraguayan girl, whose identity was not disclosed to the public, isn't an outlier but part of a recurring global issue, the international outrage and attention at her situation are certainly a step in the right direction. It's important that we acknowledge and protest the terrifying cases of human rights violations experienced by girls and women every day. It's important that we raise awareness about how anti-abortion laws result in suffering and tragedy for the young mothers and, in turn, their children.

It's certainly worth noting that five of the seven countries where abortion is banned under all circumstances are located in Latin America and maintain deep connections with the Catholic Church, according to RH Reality Check's Cora Fernandez Anderson. However, there are still plenty of other countries in which abortions are illegal under most circumstances. Some of these countries include Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Haiti, and Ireland, according to Raw Story.


But even in industrialized nations like the United States where religious freedom, on paper, is the law of the land, socially conservative politicians in positions of power campaign under their ideologically-driven ideas about abortion laws, and often shape policy according to their personal beliefs. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is currently running as a Republican presidential candidate, authorized a 20-week ban on abortions in his state in July, a law that provides no exceptions including in the cases of rape and incest. In recent years, the number of abortion clinics and women's health centers have decreased dramatically in the last 25 years, dropping 75 percent to just 551 facilities nationwide. Fellow Republican candidate Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee addressed the case of the 11-year-old Paraguayan mother, expressing sympathy for the child but stood by Paraguay. "A 10-year-old girl being raped is horrible," he said, "but does it solve the problem by taking the life of an innocent child?"

Even in nations that don't enforce anti-abortion laws like Paraguay's, the destructive cultural attitudes that contribute to the millions of underage girls giving birth are certainly concerning. As the UN's Osotimehin pointed out in 2013, adolescent girls in developing countries often become pregnant not because of choices they make, but because of circumstances beyond their control. By allowing anti-abortion laws, particularly those without exceptions, to exist, we're only strengthening the powers that strip them of their bodily autonomy, that use both their gender and their age to persecute them.

Images: Nate Robert/Flickr (1)