The Health Risks of Teen Pregnancy

Helping teenage mums overcome stigma in Sierra Leone

Understanding the health risks of teen pregnancy

By Action Against Hunger

Nov 29 2015

“I was scared at that moment when I found out I was pregnant," says one teenage mother in Sierra Leone. "I was scared. My brother beat me. My mother drove me out of the house.”

 “The nurses all left me when I was in pain to go and watch their movie. They told me it was not them that made me pregnant so I should bear the pain.”

Teenage mothers in Sierra Leone experience significant stigma, social rejection, isolation and a correlation with high dropout rates from schools, according to a research recently undertaken by Action Against Hunger in partnership with the Ministry of Health, Save the Children and Concern Worldwide.

Our study, which aimed to understand the health risks associated with teen pregnancy, showed that teen mothers experience a lack of sufficient income, and inadequate knowledge regarding infant and child nutrition. In fact, the majority of mothers in the study reported that they had fed their children with water or other food when they were younger than six months of age. One mother said: “After one month, I had to give my baby warm water because I didn’t have enough food, so he wasn’t satisfied.”

On November 6, 2015, the world celebrated the news that the deadly Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone was over, after reaching 42 days with no new reported cases. This was an historic victory for the government and people of Sierra Leone. Another public health victory was also recently recognised in Sierra Leone in support of the Millennium Development Goals: since 1990, the rate of maternal deaths in the country has been cut in half.

A public health challenge

Despite these efforts, the country is still struggling to overcome an ongoing massive public health challenge that has not made the headlines.  As recently as 2013, Sierra Leone had the world’s highest rate of mortality among children under the age of five (at 182 child deaths per 1,000 live births).  Undernutrition is a major contributor to child mortality in the country, and also undermines longer-term health and development among children.

Undernutrition is caused by a combination of immediate causes — such as a lack of available nutritious food and/or  illness and disease — and underlying factors, such as poverty, lack of access to health care and information, and poor knowledge and practices regarding hygiene and feeding. In Sierra Leone, 12.9 per cent of children are underweight, 28.8 per cent are physically stunted (not growing to normal height), and 4.7 per cent are severely malnourished.

Poor households — and children of mothers who lack access to education — are at particularly high risk of undernutrition. Information also suggests that teenage mothers are more likely to have poor care practices that can contribute to undernutrition. Even though prior to the Ebola outbreak on May 26th, 2014,  teenage  pregnancy accounted for 34 per cent of all pregnancies in Sierra Leone, until recently, there was very little evidence on the care and feeding practices of teen mothers.

Read the full report here to find out what we learned about how to improve the health of Sierra Leone’s teen mothers and their babies.

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Image credit: Sandra Calligaro for ACF-SierraLeone