Preventing teenage pregnancies
According to the Ghana Health Service (GHS), between 2016 and 2020 more than half a million Ghanaian girls aged 10 to 19 years became pregnant. That is an average of over 111,000 teen pregnancies per year. Of all the teen pregnancies during this period, over 13,400 involved girls between the ages of 10 and 14.
Teen pregnancy is associated with a high school drop-out rate, which suggests negative consequences for the affected girls’ futures. “We have seen several girls get pregnant and they are all 14 to 15 years old,” says Rafiskata Mohammed, girls’ education officer in north-western Ghana. “Some stay in school but many others drop out to marry. One of our female students who got pregnant moved to Accra to work as a porter, carrying burdens on her head to earn money.”
The high rate of teen pregnancy is related to forced marriages involving young girls, she adds. “Even if a girl does not want to get married, the man may just forcibly impregnate her. Then the family will be annoyed and tell the girl to marry the man.”
The twin phenomena of teen pregnancies and forced marriages involving young girls have several causes. Many schools do not offer adequate education in reproductive health or sufficient encouragement to girls to avoid pregnancy and complete their education. Poverty, parental neglect and cultural norms also play significant roles. “If a child needs something and the parents cannot provide it, she might look elsewhere,” says Winfred Ofosu, a GHS’s regional director.
He adds that young girls tend to be vulnerable to persistent sexual advances: “If you are a girl and you are ‘cornered’ by a man who wants to have sex with you, theoretically you should be able to talk your way out of it, but in reality you don’t know how and you are too young to resist.”
One possible solution receiving increasing attention is to increase the age of consent to sex from 16 to 18, to match the age of legal consent to marriage. This would make sex with a child under 18 a violation of the law in and of itself. “The adult involved would not be able to argue that sex was consensual, because no one under 18 would be allowed to make that decision,” Ofosu says.
Just changing the legal age of consent is not enough, says Rafiskata Mohammed. Ingrained cultural norms still force many young girls into unwanted marriages, for example. Mohammed suggests passing community bylaws to discourage such practices. Cultural norms often also impede urgently needed sex education (see Mahwish Gul on www.dandc.eu). The plain truth is that parents, teachers and societies as a whole have to realise, that sex education is not about having sex. It is about preparing teenagers for a responsible, safe and fulfilling adulthood.
Dasmani Laary is a journalist in Ghana.