Addressing contraceptive needs of adolescent women in developing regions

Contraceptives for women. Some 38 million adolescent women aged 15-19 in developing regions are sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy; of those, 23 million have an unmet need for modern contraception. Photo by: Lindsay Mgbor / DfID / CC BY-NC-ND

Today is International Youth Day. Thousands of young women and men around the world are gathering to celebrate this annual event, which serves to highlight the role they play in shaping global change.

Today is also an opportunity to draw attention to the challenges young people face and the ways the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious set of goals adopted by world leaders in 2015 that aim to end poverty and improve quality of life, seek to address some of those challenges. Achievement of the three goals that cover health, education and gender equality depends to a large extent on improving the lives and health, including the sexual and reproductive health, of adolescent women.

Some 38 million adolescent women aged 15-19 in developing regions are sexually active and want to avoid pregnancy; of those, 23 million have an unmet need for modern contraception. This means that even though these young women don’t want to have a child soon, they are not practicing contraception at all or they are using traditional methods, which are less effective than modern contraceptives.

All sexually active adolescent women should have access to safe and effective methods of contraception. However, many young women who want to avoid pregnancy are not receiving the services they need to protect their health and delay childbearing. This is especially true in the poorest countries and in the poorest communities within countries.

This year, 21 million women aged 15-19 in developing regions will become pregnant. Almost half of these pregnancies will have been unintended. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death among this age group, and babies born to adolescent women face greater health risks than do those born to older women. Childbearing in adolescence is also associated with decreased educational attainment and diminished future income for mothers; they and their children are therefore at increased risk of poverty.

A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute shows why meeting adolescent women’s contraceptive needs should rank high on the global agenda. The report, “Adding it Up: Costs and Benefits of Meeting the Contraceptive Needs of Adolescents,” analyzed data from a wide range of sources to estimate contraceptive use and unmet need among women aged 15-19 in developing regions. The report also calculated the costs of fully meeting these women’s need for contraception and the substantial benefits of helping them prevent unintended pregnancy.

What would it cost to provide adolescent women in poorer parts of the world with the services they so urgently need? Our researchers found that expanding services to the 23 million adolescent women with unmet need for modern contraception, as well as improving the quality of contraceptive services for those who already use a modern method, would cost an estimated $770 million annually, or an average of $21 per user per year. Put another way, the cost in these regions would be just $0.12 per capita.

This is a small price to pay for the enormous benefits that would result. Each year, there would be: 6 million fewer unintended pregnancies; 2.1 million fewer unplanned births;  3.2 million fewer abortions, including 2.4 million fewer unsafe abortions; and 5,600 fewer adolescent maternal deaths.

The greatest number of lives saved would be in Africa, the region with the highest rates of maternal mortality.

These significant health benefits would bring about additional broad and long-term social and economic benefits — not just for adolescent women, but also for their families, their communities, and their countries as a whole. It would spare young women and their families the adverse consequences of early childbearing, secure significant savings in spending on maternal and child health care, and boost young women’s education and economic prospects. It would reduce poverty and, ultimately, help nations achieve their developmental goals.

The evidence is clear: Investing in adolescent women’s contraceptive services in developing regions must be at the heart of global health and development strategies.

For more Devex coverage on the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ann Starrs

    Ann M. Starrs is president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. A widely recognized expert in reproductive and maternal health, she has authored and co-authored numerous papers and commentaries on global health policy issues during her nearly 30 years in the field. She is also an influential advocate for the health and rights of women and adolescent girls worldwide.