KUCHING: The problem of teenage pregnancy is one that needs serious attention, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when increased poverty and lockdowns can lead to a higher rate of such cases.
Dr Subatra Jayaraj, president of the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia said there was a need for holistic, non-judgmental, rights-based policies to support the girls and teenage mothers.
“The pandemic and lockdown have increased poverty due to job losses and decreased access to healthcare. We can expect the situation (teenage pregnancy) to worsen as well,” she told FMT.
She said socio-economic status, specifically poverty, was linked to higher rates of teenage pregnancies. It (poverty) can be seen as both cause and effect of young parenthood. It is a complex issue as low income families or communities have many barriers in access to education, health and economic opportunities.
“In many communities, a lack of opportunities for education and employment lead to child marriages or relationships seen as the only option for survival,” she said.
“We need to understand these perspectives to advocate change. What opportunities are there if a girl cannot attend school? What policies support creation of opportunities for a girl to thrive in her community?”
It was recently reported that up to 96% of the 2,099 teenage pregnancies in Sarawak last year involved school dropouts. The cases involved children as young as 10 years.
Subatra said such issues needed to be addressed promptly as teenage mothers have higher risks of pregnancy complications, social isolation and mental health issues.
She said globally, interventions that have led to the effective reduction in teenage pregnancy rates included school-based comprehensive sex education, particularly on contraceptives, community-based education, youth development programmes and family outreach.
There have been 41 reported cases of baby dumping in Sarawak from 2014 to 2020 but Subatra believed that this number was just the tip of the iceberg, as most cases are not reported.
“When a baby dumping case happens, the worst thing to do would be to blame the mother, who is in effect a victim of the entire system. We should improve knowledge of pregnancy prevention, and access to contraceptives if needed and eliminate stigmatisation and judgment of adolescent sexual activity,” she said.
She was confident a supportive culture would enable many girls with unplanned pregnancies to reach out for help if needed, instead of having to resort to baby dumping.
Meanwhile, Sarawak Suhakam commissioner Madeline Berma said there was an indirect relationship between economic wellbeing and teenage pregnancies.
Research has shown that higher rates of teenage pregnancies are found amongst girls who live in areas of higher deprivation, like squatter areas, and with other factors such as lower educational achievement.
“While becoming a parent can be a positive and life-enhancing experience for some, teenage pregnancy is associated with a number of negative social outcomes such as, being more likely to live in poverty, unemployed or having lower salaries and educational achievements than their peers,” she said.
“Besides, children of teenage mothers are more likely to become teenage parents themselves,” she said, adding teenage and unwanted pregnancies were among the causes of baby dumping, due to shame, fear and social stigma.
“We really need to educate society to be less judgmental to tackle the root causes of teenage pregnancy and baby dumping, effectively.”
Berma said there was a need to increase access to information about teenage pregnancies, termination of pregnancies, contraceptive measures as well as comprehensive sexual education in school and institutions of higher learning.
“We also need more awareness on baby dumping and more helplines to prevent it from happening,” she added.