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The hidden girls

Going by many estimates, it is believed that Mary, mother of Jesus, was about 14 years old when she gave birth to Our Savior. This is why the story of the Visitation, a feast celebrated by the Catholic Church this week, is such a poignant tale. It tells of the visit paid by Mary to her older cousin Elizabeth, who, after many years of marriage to Zacharias, had remained childless until it was discovered that she was with child.

Before her visit to Elizabeth, Mary herself was visited by the Angel Gabriel who proclaimed to her, who had not “known any man,” that she was soon to be the mother of the Christ.

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What a contrast the two women were! One was a young virgin who unexpectedly found herself pregnant, but not by Joseph, to whom she was affianced. (Which brings us to the question of why, in her delicate condition, Mary was sent to another town to visit with Elizabeth. Was it to avoid wagging tongues or censorious neighbors?) The other was a woman way past middle age who defied the odds and shocked many people when news spread that she was with child. As Fr. Nono Alfonso, SJ, pointed out in a homily last Tuesday, “both of them caused scandal in their communities, and were outcasts because of it.”

The two cousins are also bookends of the maternal story: living out the very real problem that many women face, being either too young or too old for a healthy pregnancy and successful childbirth.

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Mary’s situation confronts millions of girls around the world to this day. “It is estimated that every year over 2 million girls give birth before they turn 15,” says information material prepared by the UN Population Fund (Unfpa) and Plan International, an NGO advocating for child rights.

“Every day 5,500 very young girls are pushed from childhood into motherhood. The exact numbers are unclear as girls under 15 are often invisible in national and global statistics, which mainly covers ‘women of reproductive age,’ considered to be from 15 to 49,” add both organizations.

To “surface” these hidden girls and mothers, they have launched #childmothers, a web platform and traveling photo exhibit that was inaugurated at the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen on the occasion of the Women Deliver conference, and will then circle the globe to raise awareness of the issue of very early motherhood.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Unfpa executive director, stresses that “what is needed is a new way of thinking about the challenges of adolescent pregnancy. Instead of viewing the girl as the problem and changing her behavior as the solution, governments, communities, families and schools should see poverty, gender inequality, discrimination, lack of access to services, and negative views about girls and women as the real challenges, and the pursuit of social justice, equitable development and the empowerment of girls as the true pathway to fewer adolescent pregnancies.”

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The reality of young and very young mothers (and fathers) is very much present in our midst. According to the Unfpa local office, the top two reproductive health challenges in the country are: the increase in the number of people testing positive for HIV, many of them young gay men, and the growing number of adolescent pregnancies.

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Teenage pregnancies are particularly problematic because these also presage alarming health problems, including serious complications arising from pregnancy and delivery. Many young mothers (and their children) do not survive, with global statistics estimating that 70,000 girls between the age of 10 and 19 die from birth-related complications every year.

“There are millions of girls in the world who become mothers when they are children. These girls are often denied their rights and need of support,” says Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International. “We need to recognize that what works for married women in their 30s does not automatically work for young girls. Very young girls face the greatest health risks in pregnancy and childbirth, and are often excluded from society.”

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Women are likewise excluded from other aspects of life, especially in the economy and business field where they are often seen as consumers or customers, rather than as actors, much less leaders.

There is an initiative being implemented in the country called “Healthy Women, Healthy Economies” (HWHE) under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Merck, and the US and Philippine governments.

Merck and the Philippine government have launched the first HWHE public-private partnership addressing thyroid health, a problem that disproportionately affects women. As Susan Herbert, executive vice president of Merck, explains, “health and well-being are major barriers to women’s participation in the economy.” And yet, despite the fact that women are most susceptible to what are known as “noncommunicable diseases” such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular ailments, and despite findings that treatments for women should be different from those for men, the medical community has yet to see that what works for men doesn’t always work for women, and vice-versa.

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One problem, says Catherine Russell of the US Department of State, is that “women and girls are not valued enough.” She cites the need to “lift the status of girls and women, and change the perception of society.”

Herbert says that in the course of her promotion of the HWHE strategy, she is often asked: “what’s in it for you?” Her answer revolves around the fact that “the world has changed so much in the last five years,” and new answers to old problems “cannot come from just government or just the private sector.” Both need to work together, she adds, if we are all to “survive, thrive and transform.”

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TAGS: child mothers, Elizabeth, Mary, reproductive health, UN Population Fund
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