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Colombo, Sri Lanka-- This week the world focuses on ‘Investing in Teenage Girls’ – the theme for World Population Day which is celebrated today (11, July). Teenage girls around the world are vulnerable and suffer a great deal more than their male peers. In Sri Lanka, the situation is no better.

One of the most burning issues in teenage pregnancy. Sri Lanka appears better than most South Asian countries, with teenage pregnancies recorded at a lowly 6 per cent. This number however, is misleading as these are only the ‘recorded’ teenage pregnancies; several teenage pregnancies are believed to go unrecorded. It is also important to remember that 6 per cent still translates into thousands of young women and newborns who are disempowered, and face medical complication. A problem that needs to be address, statistics aside.

The University of Colombo, took into account the significance of World Population Day and the need to address the issue of teenage pregnancy in Sri Lanka, by organized a full day awareness building event for the students. UNFPA proudly supported the event, as it is crucial that the youth and future leaders are aware of the long-term, damaging effects of teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence that almost go hand-in-hand.

UNFPA Country Representative, Alain Sibenaler, was the Guest of Honour at the event, and was part of the panel consisting of Senior Professor Lakshman Dissanayake – Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo – as the Chief Guest, Professor Nimal Dangalle – Emeritus Professor, University of Kelaniyaand Dr. A.J. Satharasinghe – Director General, Department of Census and Statistics.
Several eminent academics and interested individuals were present at the stimulating panel discussion.

Speaking at the event, UNFPA Sri Lanka Country Representative, Alain Sibenaler, said “In many countries, a girl who reaches puberty is deemed by her family and community as ready for marriage, pregnancy and childbirth. She may be married off and forced to leave school. She may suffer a debilitating condition from delivering a child before her body is ready for it. She may be denied her basic human rights. Without education, in poor health, and with little or no control over her own body, her future can be derailed, and her potential may never be realized. The challenges and obstacles faced by a teenage girl multiply if she is a member of an ethnic minority, lives in a village and is from an underprivileged household”.

In Sri Lanka, 1 out of 4 girls are sexually abused by the time they reach 18 years of age. Teenage pregnancies are becoming a major concern with 6.5% of the total pregnancies registered in2009 being in the 15-19 year age group. Despite a general decline in teenage pregnancies between 2007-2009, there is still great variability in the rates among districts. For example, around 3% of teenage girls in Galle had begun childbearing, while in Ampara the proportion is a staggering 16%.

There is a high unmet need for family planning in Sri Lanka due to myths about the practice of family planning. Lack of accessibility to reproductive health services coupled with social, economic and cultural barriers, and non-use of family planning methods due to lack of knowledge and opposition from spouse have hindered the decline of teenage pregnancies.

While Sri Lanka has achieved remarkable social and health indices however; sexual and reproductive health remains a big challenge for today’s young people. The quality of reproductive health education and services does not meet international standard and protocols. Limited and inadequate knowledge on sexual and reproductive health (less than 50% among school going adolescents), pre-marital sex and unprotected sex, teenage marriage and pregnancies (6.3%), increasing rate of sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, lack of accessibility and availability of family planning services, Lack of knowledge on contraceptive methods are major issues in Sri Lanka.

Hopefully, this year, World Population Day, will convince stakeholders to place more effort in investing in teenage girls for a better future for the entire population.