Child marriage is a major factor in adolescent pregnancies in Laos

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Child marriages have been linked to the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Southeast Asia.

Journal/conference: PLOS

Organisation/s:The University of Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Burnet Institute

Media Release

From: Burnet Institute

Laos is the country with the highest rate of pregnancies among young women in Southeast Asia. But until recently, the underlying causes were not well understood.

New research has revealed that the acceptance child marriages, a lack of sexual health knowledge, power imbalances in relationships, alcohol use leading to forced sex, and girls’ lack of agency contribute to pregnancies before the age of 18.

According to the study Understanding diverse pathways to adolescent pregnancy in Lao People’s Democratic RepublicYoung marriages, viewed as the most acceptable solution to adolescent pregnant outside of a union and girls view marriages as an acceptable alternative education.

After marriage, couples are also under pressure to prove their fertility.

Marie Habito, Senior Research Officer at the Burnet Institute, said that understanding the context in which girls become pregnant can help policymakers create better programs to meet these girls’ needs.

“One of the key contributions of this study is that it shed light on adolescent girls’ personal experiences,” she said.

“This underscores the importance of giving adolescents space to communicate their needs and share their thoughts and expertise on matters that concern them.”

The male partner’s control over reproductive decision-making was also a key factor in young pregnancies, including the decision not to use condoms.

Girls who took part in the study said that their husbands thought condoms were inappropriate for married couples, because they associated condoms and sexually transmitted infections with marital infidelity.

Researchers found many of the girls’ first sexual experiences happened under the influence of alcohol, or with assurances that the man involved would take responsibility for a potential pregnancy through marriage.

Interviews also suggested that girls viewed sexual health information as being ‘only for married people’ as many did not receive much information on reproductive health until after they were married or had given birth.

“The shopkeepers in the market and many people, especially [older] friends I know, they all told me to ‘be careful … [and] don’t focus on boys’. They said we would have a child if we stayed out late, played around and stayed up late. But I don’t really understand what they mean,” one participant said.

The paper is a part of a series of four countries, including Indonesia, Cambodia, and Malaysia, which was funded by UNFPA/UNICEF.

“Similar to our findings from Indonesia, in Laos, adolescent pregnancy was either a cause or consequence of child marriage and early union,” Dr Habito said.

“Our paper draws attention to the need for all adolescents to have access to comprehensive sexual education, to address harmful substance use — primarily alcohol — that leads to pressured and forced sex, and for programs to be developed that respond to sociocultural and financial drivers of child marriage and early union.”

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