We are inundated with birth stories in our day-to-day lives. Glance at the magazine rack while in line at the grocery store and you'll see at least one headline announcing a new celebrity baby. Or scroll your social media feed — just last month the story of Beyoncé and Jay-Z's twins "broke the internet."
Then there are the birth stories we hear far less about.
One woman dies every two minutes from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
About 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 give birth every year — most in low- and middle-income countries.
Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 across the world.
And 2.7 million newborn babies die every year.
The birth stories above are grim but they are not predestined — they can change when communities become catalysts for transformative change.
In a small school in Honduras, a group of boys are gathered in a circle. A facilitator is leading the group in a trust-building exercise, creating a safe and open space where the boys can reflect on gender stereotypes and ideas of masculinity. One young man explains how he feels pressure to act aggressively. Another reflects on his younger sister being afraid to walk to school alone.
When we think about changing these stories the first thing that comes to mind is probably not a group of young men participating in trust-building exercises and discussing masculinity. Unfortunately, unequal gender relations and values are often at the root of poor health outcomes for women and girls.
In areas where Plan International and its partners work on maternal, newborn, child, and sexual and reproductive health projects, men make most of the decisions.
In Nigeria, when asked about family planning, one woman said, "the woman first has to ask for permission from the husband [to seek family planning services], if he allows her, she will go ahead and if he doesn't allow her she cannot."
Because of their age, adolescent girls bear the brunt of these injustices. They are financially dependent on their partners and families and have less decision-making power. They also face a higher risk of complications with pregnancy and childbirth.
Pregnant adolescents are often the most isolated. They are distanced from their peers and often barred from school. If they are pregnant and unmarried they can face enormous stigma, ostracized by their families and communities and unable to access health services. An adolescent girl in Senegal told us, "as soon as the doctor knows you're not married he can have prejudices against you and change his behaviour and not receive you in the same fashion as married women."
It is not simply a matter of distributing contraceptives, improving health services, or changing laws — though these are critical steps. Real change requires sustained work to tackle the root causes of gender discrimination and inequality in every sphere — from private relationships to public systems. Shifting entrenched and structural norms is not easy, but it is the only way to uproot the inequalities that prevent girls and women from realizing their rights.
Plan International Canada works to ignite and support these conversations in communities in Ghana, Haiti, Bangladesh, Senegal, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Nigeria, helping to change the birth story for adolescent girls and women in these communities.
Youth-led conversations, like the one in the classroom in Honduras are critical to ensuring sexual and reproductive health rights for girls. In a similar session in Tanzania, a young man shared: "I think for us who have changed, we should just continue to educate other men through our actions in such a way that our friends who have not yet changed will learn from our actions."
This can take many forms, from simple conversations like the ones in the classrooms in Honduras and Tanzania to community theatre where youth address gender stereotypes through drama, to empowerment clubs where girls increase their ability to assert their rights and challenge norms.
You can be part of this real change. Join the movement of Canadians who pledge to stand with Canada to change the birth story — because they believe that every adolescent girl, woman and child has the right to be healthy and to live a life free of discriminationand help change the birth story today.
Saadya Hamdani is a Senior Gender Equality Advisor for Plan International Canada.
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