Malaysia’s problem with teenage pregnancy

Some 4,500 out-of -wedlock pregnancies involving teens are reported in Malaysia every year. (Reuters Pic)

PETALING JAYA: Research has shown that an average of 18,000 teenage girls in Malaysia get pregnant each year. Out of this number, 25% or about 4,500 cases involve pregnancy out of wedlock.

Citing 2015 statistics from the health ministry, experts from the UM Specialist Centre (UMSC) said while the latest figures for 2018 have not been released, they believe teenage pregnancy is on the rise.

“These numbers could be the tip of the iceberg as many cases are likely unreported,” UMSC obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Aizura Syafinaz Ahmad Adlan told Bernama in a recent joint interview with her sister, UMSC psychiatrist Dr Aida Syarinaz.

The data also showed that around 14 in every 1,000 underage girls in Malaysia get pregnant every year, which adds up to an average of 18,000 girls per year. In comparison, Singapore’s rate is four pregnancies for every 1,000 underage girls, and Hong Kong’s, three out of every 1,000.

Aizura said in Malaysia, social acceptance of teenage pregnancy is still poor, restricted and secluded. It is also regarded as taboo, as premarital sex, incest, rape, sexual abuse and teen marriage come as a precursor.

Statutory rape

Malaysia’s Penal Code defines statutory rape as sexual activity with a girl under the age of 16 who is unable to understand the nature and consequence of giving consent. According to the World Health Organisation, teenage pregnancy is defined as pregnancies in which the mother’s age is between 13 and 19.

The age of consent in Malaysia is 16. The age of consent is the minimum age at which an individual is considered legally able to give consent to sexual activity.

Individuals aged 15 or younger in Malaysia are not legally able to give consent to sexual activity, and such activity may result in prosecution for statutory rape or the equivalent local law.

“Therefore, I question parents who allow teenage marriages (to take place). Should they be ‘charged’ for consenting to statutory rape?” asked Aizura.

She said studies also showed that most teen pregnancy cases in Malaysia involved girls from among the urban poor, that is the lower socio-economic income group comprising single mothers with children, as well as parents who work double shifts or have two jobs and leave their children unsupervised at home.

“Sadly, these sectors are large groups where their teenage daughters end up pregnant. Predominantly, these young girls lack attention and are left alone with a lot of free time on their hands. It’s like a vicious cycle. As it stands, they hail from a low socio income group and regrettably end up pregnant,” she added.

Citing a Malay proverb, “Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat” (Let the child die but not tradition), she said the parents would be livid after realising that their daughter had lost her innocence, but instead of resolving the issue, they would be more focused on how to handle the embarrassment caused by their daughter.

Halfway house

“In many cases, the girl is sent to a halfway house to deliver the child. Some parents want their daughter to come home alone without the baby as they believe an illegitimate child would bring shame to the family,” said Aizura.

More often than not, she said, unwed mothers are not accepted by their own parents hence the practice of dumping or abandoning newborn infants. Data shows that an average of 100 babies are dumped nationwide in Malaysia every year.

She said the idea of using condoms or oral contraceptives was still taboo within the conservative society as it was often seen as promoting “free sex” and encouraging promiscuity.

“For instance, I wanted to regulate a teenager’s period by recommending oral contraceptives, but her mother was against the idea for fear that people might think her daughter was sexually active.

“While information on teenage pregnancy has been available on the health ministry’s myHEALTH portal since 2012, it only saw 34 visitors as at end-November this year, reflecting the poor outreach among youths,” she said.

Basic biology

Aizura said there was a need to review sex education in secondary schools, which only emphasises the basic biology of humans’ reproductive system.

“The approach to sex education is too academic and still indirect as most people shy away from discussing the topic of ‘sexuality’. Schools are teaching the usage of the intrauterine contraceptive device (IUCD) at Form 1 level. IUCD is something that we teach our medical students in our medical school curriculum.

“When statistics showed that teenage pregnancy was higher among the 15-year-olds, we simply decided to educate students earlier, in Form 1, when they are 13 years old. How is this thoroughly thought out?

“Schools don’t teach about the sex act per se, and highlight the pros and cons. The eventuality of not knowing the consequences of having unsafe sex deceives the girl into pregnancy, and enduring the problems thereafter,” she added.

She also noted the lack of knowledge on sexual reproductive health among Malaysians.

According to a 2015 survey backed by the health ministry, 35% of Malaysian female youths believed that having sex for the first time will not lead to pregnancy, and one in five Malaysians believed that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) could be transmitted by mosquitoes – which is an alarming interpretation.

Aizura said parents were to blame for not filling the gaps in their children’s understanding of the birds and the bees, noting that this was often due to cultural taboos and upbringing.

Consensual sex

Studies also show that many teenagers below 16 become pregnant as a result of premarital consensual sexual activity.

Aida explained the attachment theory which affirms that the bond between the child and the caregiver determines their future relationship.

“Attachment is an emotional bond with another person. The earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life.

“Children who are securely attached tend to develop better self-esteem and self-reliance as they grow older. Usually, they are more independent, have successful social relationships and experience less depression and anxiety. Failure to form secure attachment earlier in life can have a negative impact on their adult life,” she said.

Aida said parents need to accept the fact when their daughters become pregnant, and address the problem in the best possible way as denial did not help in dealing with the pregnancy.

“Parents tend to get uncomfortable discussing sexual issues with their teenage children, leaving them to seek such information from the media and their peers,” she added.

Main breadwinner

Citing the case of a 14-year-old girl whose father was an alcoholic and whose mother was the main breadwinner, Aida said: “Her parents were hardly at home and the girl spent a lot of time with her then-boyfriend who gave her a lot of attention.

“She was not well informed about sexual intercourse and did not realise that she was repeatedly being raped by her boyfriend, who described the intercourse as an ‘act of love’.

“She was scared that if she did not do what the boyfriend wanted, she would lose his love, even though the intercourse was painful for her. She is still getting treatment as she was very much traumatised by it.”

Aizura added that in many cases, especially among low-income families, adolescent children come home and are greeted by packed food on the dining table instead of a home-cooked meal and dinner with the family. In such situations, their parents are probably at work and doing double shifts.

Unattended, she said, the girl may feel lonely and end up spending her free time with her boyfriend, who would be waiting within the vicinity with his motorbike.

Aida said youths today were vulnerable to negative sexual exposure through pornographic materials. Without effective and comprehensive sex education, she added, youths tend to learn and understand the distorted versions of sex, and some upload nude photos of themselves via social media platforms such as WeChat.

“Should the girl decide to indulge in sexual activities, then she must practise safe sex to protect herself, that is the harm reduction approach. The consequences of prohibited sexual affairs can lead to pregnancy. Remember, you have the right to say ‘no’ to sex,” she said.

While abstinence from sex should be promoted to prevent teenage pregnancy, she said, proper parental supervision, a safe environment at home, staying in school and having a healthy relationship with family and peers might also reduce the risks of unwanted pregnancies.