Teenage pregnancy in Peru: why it's so high and what can be done?

Two mothers and their children

By the age of 19, almost 1 in 5 young women in Peru have already had a child.  According to the 2012 World Bank report on teenage pregnancy, the Latin American and Caribbean region has the third highest teenage fertility rate in the world and teenage childbearing is therefore a major policy concern for the region.

Most international evidence points out to a negative impact on parents' outcomes—but particularly those of the mother, including her participation in the workforce in the short term, and her educational achievement—and on the birth and future of the newborns. Although the impact on workforce participation eventually fades away, teenage pregnancy compromises women’s labour productivity in the long run. Policies aimed at reducing the prevalence of teenage pregnancy are likely to help with women´s economic empowerment.

In my paper with Marta Favara and Pablo Lavado, Understanding teenage fertility, cohabitation, and marriage: the case of Peru, we used longitudinal data from Young Lives to investigate teenage childbearing, marriage, and cohabitation in Peru. We used information from the older cohort, born between 1994 and 1995, and tracked since 2002 when they were 8 years of age—they were subsequently visited at the age of 12, 15 and 19 years. We found that 1 in every five young women have at least one child by the time they are 19, and a similar proportion is cohabiting or married. Comparatively, only 1 in 20 young men is a father by the same age.

For teenage parents and especially for mothers, teenage childbearing is associated with a lower probability of being enrolled in formal education at age 19. At a period when an important proportion of young women in Peru are able to attend higher education, teenage mothers typically stay at home dealing with household chores. This is likely to have long run effect on women´s employability.

In our study, we identified a number of aspects measured during childhood and early adolescence that predict teenage pregnancy. First, material poverty and the prolonged absence of one of the parents are found to have detrimental effects. Girls that grew up in poor households—as measured by an index that contain information on housing quality, access to basic service and access to durable goods—are more like to be teenage mothers.

Behind this association there can be multiple causes, including economic constraints that reduce school investments and increase the likelihood of child work; and, heterogeneity in household preferences and in access to information. In addition, we found that the absence of one of the parents when we visited the household for the first time—at the age of 8—is associated with a higher probability of teenage pregnancy. We stress that this relationship is only observed when the absence occurs for a long period of time.

School progress also emerges as an important determinant. Specifically, school attendance at age 15 and higher test scores at age 12 are associated with a reduction in the probability of teenage pregnancy. This likely reflects that girls that perform well at school have ‘more to lose’ in becoming teenage mothers. We also found that girls whose self-efficacy and educational aspirations reduce during adolescence are at more risk of becoming teenage mothers. This decline in psychosocial competencies is often related to poor school performance.

What does our analysis suggest can be done to reduce the underlying drivers of teenage pregnancy in Peru?

Firstly we have to make it worth girls’ time to stay on in school.  Policies aimed at improving school performance and school completion rates are regarded as effective tools for reducing unwanted early pregnancy by increasing the opportunity cost of such a decision. Both social policy and educational policy are relevant in this respect. Anti-poverty programmess such as the Juntos conditional cash transfer program fulfill the double objective of alleviating monetary poverty and providing incentives for girls to stay at school. On the educational policy arena, the Minister of Education is currently implementing an Extended School Day Programme (Jornada Escolar Completa, JEC, described in this short animation) in public schools. This initiative seeks both to extend the length of the school-day and to provide better services to students at the secondary level in urban areas. Inasmuch as JEC is likely to improve school attainment and to enhance educational aspirations, it has the potential to reduce teenage pregnancy. Note that while JEC provides an opportunity for urban girls, an equivalent model needs to be developed in rural areas.

Lastly, our study found that the younger the girl at the time of starting sexual relations, the more likely she is to become a teenage mother. Policies aimed at improving sex education are essential to reduce early pregnancy. There is space for both the education and health sectors to work together on sex education, which should start, at the latest, in the first grades of secondary. Such an approach needs to be firmly situated within broader support to adolescents’ sexual and reproductive rights and access to services.

A sensible strategy would be to promote all these types of policies simultaneously; they complement each other, and their joint application would potentially create a strong safety net for adolescents.

Making sure girls have the right incentives to stay in school and to aspire to higher education is an effective strategy not only to reduce teenage pregnancy but to economically empower the next generation of women.