Periods can give women a vital option: The option of whether or not to have children. That option is not there for everyone. Some women, as we have documented at length on this site previously, are unable to conceive a baby – and live in fear of multiple miscarriages, of never quite having the family they dreamed of, and of routine disappointment each time they pee on that formidable, white plastic stick. Women elsewhere, on the other hand, are made to have children against their will.
What is usually under-reported when it comes to forced pregnancy, is the number of girls around the globe who are forced to have children while they are still below the statutory age of consent. There is an endemic situation that we hear very little about, whereby girls who are considered too young to have consensual sex are being made – usually involuntary – to give birth to children, often, when they are still children themselves. In fact, in 2013 the UNFPA estimated that two million births take place each year to girls under 15 years of age around the world.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, thousands of young girls are forced to become mothers. In 2012, the number of births to girls under 14 years in 12 countries alone in the region was a staggering 60,690. While I spent my preadolescence misguidedly whining about not starting my period earlier, for these young girls, starting their periods at a young age has cost them their childhoods, as well as their health and – in some grave cases – their lives.
An NGO called CLADEM (Child Mothers: Forced Child Pregnancies and Maternities in Latin America and the Caribbean) have been looking into this issue for a while. They’ve found that, in these regions, most child pregnancies are caused by sexual abuse – often by members of the underage girl in question’s family. Impunity for such violence is likely to be at least 90%, and according to CLADEM, “Where laws protecting girls from sexual violence including child pregnancy and forced childbirth do exist, they are rarely implemented.”
States ignore this serious violation of human rights
Here’s an example of the kind of cases CLADEM work on: In 2014, at 10 years old, a Paraguayan girl called Mainumby was raped by her stepfather. Her mother reported suspected abuse to local police, but they failed to investigate properly. Not long after, the mother found the girl feeling unwell, and after three months of misdiagnoses from doctors – who suggested the pain might be parasites, for example – a hospital discovered Mainumby was pregnant.
As if being raped at 10 years old wasn’t traumatic enough, Mainumby was then forced to go through with the pregnancy, since Paraguayan abortion law forbids termination unless a mother's life is deemed to be in danger. The girl was forcibly removed from her family members, put in an institution for child pregnancies and kept there till the pregnancy came to term. When she had the baby, she was 11. International news sites were up in arms, but nothing has changed in Paraguay since.
Incest and rape are tricky topics; people don’t want to talk about it
“In Latin America, pregnancy in girls under 14 is on the rise. In the rest of the world, numbers are beginning to go down," Shelby tells me. "Much of this is happening in the home, or with people of authority. Incest and rape are tricky topics; people don’t want to talk about it, so statistics are hard to come by. Sexual abuse is not always reported, for example, because of the shame and abuse of power. Police don’t always prioritise it either,” she adds.
In the specific case of Mainumby, Shelby says the doctor suggested the girl’s life was at risk, so the foetus should be terminated. “The Minister of Health overrode that decision," explains Shelby, "And, in fact, Mainumby’s own mother was put in jail for negligence – for not protecting her daughter from the abuse." Sometimes law enforcement will arrest the doctor for performing an abortion, too. Anyone who performs an abortion in Paraguay can be sentenced to 15 to 30 months in prison.
Equality Now approached the Inter-American Commission and asked them to intervene: "We told Paraguay we want the child to receive all benefits and to release Mainumby's mother from jail. Nothing happened. The girl had a C section, the pregnancy damaged her pelvic floor, and of course there is a psychological damage attached.”
In Bangladesh, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and Niger – one girl in ten has a child before the age of 15 years old
What’s particularly scary about all of these statistics is that – as Shelby puts it – these are just the children who get pregnant, are referred to doctors, and land themselves on hospital records. Other girls will seek backstreet abortions. In Paraguay, for example, 23 out of 100 deaths of young women are thought to be the result of these illegal terminations.
“We don’t know how many girls are being raped, and how many of those cannot get pregnant because their bodies are still unable to at that age, because they have yet to start menstruating,” she explains. “CLADEM found in 12 countries across the region more than 60,000 girls under 14 gave birth. And in those countries, girls under 14 cannot consent to sex, so we know each case was statutory rape – and no one is doing anything about it.”
“We need to demand that states legislate child forced pregnancy as a crime and considered it torture,” says Elba, CLADEM’s Regional Coordinator. “We need to review their punitive legislation on abortion and provide services to girls in case of rape abortion, empower girls and provide sexual education, access to reproductive health services and psychological and legal advice".
Who should determine when the child is at risk... Should it be a doctor or a judge?
Otherwise, what becomes of these young girls? Shelby says we don’t always know. In the case of Mainumby, she didn’t get back into school, and according to Equality Now, is still not in school. “The mother who was put in jail,” says Shelby, “Her charges were dismissed eventually, but she lost her job because she was 60 days in jail. The state did not help her get a new job."
The state also said the 11-year-old was not capable of raising a child and that they would take it away, but the grandmother fought and won to keep the baby. In many cases, however, Shelby explains that the baby is taken away and the child forced to have it suffers a third trauma: the rape, the pregnancy, and then the removal of one child from the child who conceived it.
The UNFPA's report states that, the problem of child pregnancy is perpetuating the very gender inequality it is caused by. It leads to "missed educational and other opportunities, perpetuation of poverty and exclusion [from society] and girls' potential generally going unfulfilled."
And then of course there are the health risks posed to the baby, not just the mother. The World Health Organisation finds a 50% higher risk of babies being stillborn or dying in the first few weeks of life, when they are born to women under 20 in developing countries. "They are also more likely to be born underweight, which can have long-term health implications," reports the Guardian.
"The abortion is the aftermath. What we’re pushing for is to ensure that the pregnancy is not happening to begin with..."
Paraguay is a deeply Catholic country, as is Poland, and Ireland – and in the cases of all three countries, it is the Church that have a heavy hand in shaping legislation around abortions, too. "The Church often has a large role in these cultural issues, pressuring the mother, doctors and lawyers so that abortion does not take place," says Shelby."Where is the Church on preventing violence against these girls?"
Equality Now and CLADEM both believe that conversations need to shift from abortions onto sexual abuse. "The abortion is the aftermath," says Shelby, "What we’re pushing for is to ensure that the pregnancy is not happening to begin with... The Church should be using its influence to have frank discussions with men in their parishes about sexual abuse and violence, while law enforcement need to stand up and prevent this everywhere... In South America, in the Caribbean and in Europe."