Health and Healthcare

How countries can save millions by prioritising young people's sexual and reproductive health

Young friends using smartphones and drinking coffee outdoor; youth, healthcare, adolescent pregnancies, reproductive and sexual health.

Tackling adolescent pregnancies improves health and wellbeing, and helps wider socio-economic development. Image: iStockphoto/DisobeyArt

Tomoko Fukuda
Regional Director, IPPF East & Southeast Asia, and Oceania Region
Andreas Daugaard Jørgensen
AVP, SEA Cluster Managing Director (South, East and Southeast Asia), Organon
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  • Pregnancy can profoundly impact young girls’ health and wellbeing, while also hindering wider socio-economic development.
  • In the Asia Pacific region, which is home to around two thirds of the world’s young people, adolescents need better sexual and reproductive health services and education.
  • Reducing adolescent pregnancies among the region’s girls could transform health and economic outcomes, but will require committed collaboration and investment.

Asia Pacific is home to over 60% of the world’s youth, and with this demographic comes the urgent and growing burden of adolescent pregnancies

The 3.9 million adolescent pregnancies that occur annually in the region have an enormous and deeply underestimated ripple effect. For millions of girls, being pregnant limits their education and employment opportunities and, therefore, their long-term economic advancement. Given that adolescent pregnancy tends to be higher among girls with less education or lower economic status already, it also perpetuates cycles of poverty and inequality in low- and middle-income countries.

There are also potentially severe health implications for young, pregnant girls in developing countries. Of the millions of adolescent pregnancies across the Asia Pacific region, 43% are unintended. Each year there are an estimated 3.6 million unsafe abortions among women. Disorders related to pregnancy and childbirth also remain the leading causes of mortality among adolescent girls.

The most vulnerable women and girls need urgent access to essential reproductive care and education. But across Asia and the Pacific, one in three women (34 million) aged 15-24 don't have access to modern contraception methods for their family planning needs. Less than one in four sexually active adolescents are using a modern method of contraception, according to the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA. It also reports:

  • Less than 35% of young people have reportedly received sexual and reproductive health information at school.
  • No country in the region currently provides comprehensive sexuality education as part of the school curriculum that meets international standards.
  • More than one in two adolescent girls report at least one serious problem accessing health care.

There are also far-reaching economic implications for girls dropping out of school because they fall pregnant. Humanitarian organization Plan International estimates developing countries could boost GDP by 10% on average by ensuring all girls finish their secondary education by 2030.

And the benefits of investing in healthcare access and education far outweigh the costs. Every additional $1 invested in contraceptive services would save an estimated $1.95 in maternal, newborn and abortion care, primarily by reducing unintended pregnancies, according to research and policy NGO the Guttmacher Institute. UNFPA believes that by fully meeting contraceptive needs, low- and middle-income countries could nearly half the $2.8 billion they spend annually on abortion and post-abortion care to $1.5 billion.

Working together to tackle adolescent pregnancies

Transforming health and economic outcomes by reducing adolescent pregnancies will take committed collaboration and investment. With this in mind, a two-day event hosted by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in partnership with UNFPA, UNICEF, Plan International and healthcare company Organon in October 2023, brought together over 100 youth leaders and networks, government representatives, development partners and private institutions.

Attendees at a two-day IPPF event to discuss unintended adolescent preganancies in Southeast Asia.
Some of the youth leaders that attended a two-day event hosted by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in partnership with UNFPA, UNICEF, Plan International and healthcare company Organon in October 2023 Image: IPPF

Attendees explored evidence-based approaches to tackle unintended pregnancy among adolescents in Southeast Asia. They identified gaps and opportunities for change, and produced the following recommendations for urgent next steps:

  • Governments should establish integrated, multi-sectoral rights-based policy frameworks to directly address social and other determinants of health, in combination with the gender inequalities adolescent girls face. This would recognize the interrelated nature of girls' social, economic, and sexual and reproductive health vulnerabilities.
  • Increased investment into sexual and reproductive health data collection is urgently needed. This would help improve understanding of the causes and impacts of unintended pregnancies on women's and girls’ rights. That information could help create more sustainable policies and investment decisions that deliver impact.
  • Adolescent sexual and reproductive health services must be integrated into universal health coverage schemes. This should be included in all relevant health policies, strategies and programmes responding to the needs of all adolescents, particularly adolescent girls.
  • Girls need access to inclusive high-quality education in a safe school environment. This should promote gender equality as part of comprehensive sexuality education to increase girls’ agency and decision-making power.

Investing in sexual and reproductive health

These changes must be supported by powerful partnerships and a whole-of-society approach. In 2022, IPPF East, Southeast Asia and Oceania Region (ESEAOR) Member Associations and partners delivered 19.3 million integrated sexual and reproductive health services, including access to contraception.

The services were provided by a range of outlets – from static to mobile clinics and community-based services. By collaborating with on-the-ground organisations, IPPF ESEAOR ensured that 3.6 million people in the most vulnerable and marginalised communities, including women and girls, had access to essential care.

Organon’s Her Promise Access Initiative is already nearly halfway towards its goal of preventing an estimated 120 million unintended pregnancies by 2030 by providing 100 million girls and women in low- and middle-income countries with affordable access to contraception.

It also launched Her Plan is Her Power in 2023, a $30 million initiative to expand this efforts through global advocacy and investment in community-driven solutions, particularly in emerging markets.

Have you read?

Unintended adolescent pregnancies cast a long shadow of severe health, social and economic repercussions. The landscape is further complicated by systemic and structural barriers that restrict access to modern contraceptive methods, disempowering women and girls from asserting control over their sexual and reproductive health.

Public-private partnerships and collaboration between governments and advocacy groups are critical for generating change. We owe it to the young girls across the Asia Pacific region to foster cooperation and greater accountability to collectively address adolescent pregnancy and its impact. The solutions should not only benefit economies, but must also have the power to transform health outcomes and save lives.

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Related topics:
Health and HealthcareYouth PerspectivesFairer Economies
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