Education for Girls Credited for Drop In Teen Birth Rates in Third World

As congress prepares to vote today on funds for international family planning, some good news is coming out of the developing world, with implications for global population growth: teen birth rates are on the decline.

This trend mirrors a drop in adolescent birth rates in the United States, though the reasons are different. In this country, early data show that teenagers are delaying the start of sexual activity, which may help explain the decline.

In developing countries, increased schooling for girls is the top reason why teen childbearing has dropped in the last 20 to 30 years. As more people migrate to urban areas, educational needs increase and some parents are seeing the benefits of keeping their daughters in school, researchers say.

Some third-world parents have also apparently seen "a lot of advantages of not having their girls marry young," says Susheela Singh, research director of the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), which studies reproductive health.

A new report by AGI says that fewer adolescents are becoming mothers, particularly in Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and some Latin American countries. As an example, Bangladesh had the highest teen birth rate three decades ago, with 85 percent of its teenage girls giving birth. That rate fell to 66 percent in 1994.

Still, the numbers in developing countries remain well above those for most developed countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, 50 to 60 percent of teenage girls give birth; in many Latin American countries, that figure is between 30 and 40 percent.

Ms. Singh says it's most important for girls to avoid pregnancy before age 18, when the health risks of childbirth can be greater than for women over 18.

Around the world, delaying parenthood is seen as a key component in efforts to control global population. While US-funded international family-planning programs mainly serve people over age 20, many also work to help teens delay sexual activity or, if already active, to obtain birth control.

And so the vote in Congress could affect US programs' ability to reach teens in the developing world. Congress is voting on whether to release international family-planning money in March or in July, and may also vote on additional cuts in funds overall. Anti-abortion groups charge that the money supports abortion rights in other countries.

"If funding isn't released until July, that will mean programs won't go on the air until that much later," says Phyllis Piotrow, director of the Population Communications Services Project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which uses the mass media to reach teens in the developing world. If more funds are cut, she adds, the project will have to eliminate programs in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Moldova, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Ghana.

According to AGI, long-term efforts to promote education for girls have paid dividends. Today, teenage girls aged 15 to 19 are two to three times more likely to have had at least seven years of schooling than women aged 40 to 44. The higher a woman's level of education, the more likely she'll delay marriage and parenthood.

But as family-planning groups try to promote delayed sexual activity and parenthood, cultural conflicts emerge. In some societies, early marriage and parenthood are accepted and even encouraged. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, girls are encouraged to engage in premarital sex to prove their fertility.

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