We Can End Early Pregnancies at Home and Abroad

Awkward. That's as good a word as any to describe the teen years. Even those of us for whom adolescence is a distant memory can still recall cringe-worthy events that paved the road to adulthood.

For most, it's just a passing phase. But for millions of young women it can be a life-altering and potentially dangerous time.

A young girl walks to school in the rain with her umbrella and school bag wrapped in a plastic bag in Lagos, Nigeria. 2008 Olunosen Louisa Ibhaze

In the developing world, one out of every three girls is married before she turns 18. One in nine is married before she is 15. Many are still children when they become mothers and their lives are threatened by pregnancy complications. However, early pregnancy is not a problem only in the developing world. In fact, the U.S. is among the seven countries where half of all the adolescent births in the world take place. Other countries include Nigeria, Bangladesh, India, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Ethiopia.

Teen pregnancy is different in all these countries. In Nigeria, girls who are married early face increased gender-based violence and risk of HIV infection. In the DRC, many families believe that having a husband can protect girls from sexual assault and rape. In the U.S., lack of real, responsible sex education contributes to teen pregnancy. But whether we're discussing child marriage in Nigeria or teen pregnancy in the U.S., the dangers of early pregnancy are real -- and largely preventable.

Early pregnancy kills. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), girls under the age of fifteen are five times more likely to die due to childbirth or pregnancy than adult women. Globally, pregnancy is the second leading cause of death for adolescent girls. In the U.S., pregnant teens are less likely to seek prenatal care, which further endangers their lives.

Early pregnancy prevents girls from reaching their full potential. In the developing world, many girls are pulled out of school due to stigma or for health or economic reasons after pregnancy. Without an education, they are then denied employment, which continues the cycle of poverty into the new generation of their families. Even in the U.S., teen pregnancy leads to gaps or incompletion of girls' education.

Early unwanted pregnancy makes girls vulnerable to violence. Girls who get pregnant before the age of 18 in the U.S. and around the world are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence.

The way forward is education and access to health services. At home and abroad, girls should be learning and growing in schools, not mothering children. For years, activists, governments and organizations have been working to end child marriage around the world. In addition to continuing the good fight against child marriage, increasing access to health services and sex education could save the lives of many girls who are already in danger of early pregnancies.

There is a key role for the United States in addressing these threats:

• By investing more in family planning and education, we can "change the now" and protect the lives of women around the world.

• By reining in the Helms Amendment -- as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to do -- the U.S. can help ensure that girls and women whose lives are threatened by pregnancy (and those who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest) have access to safe abortion care.

• By supporting the efforts of the United Nations Population Fund, we can ensure that the world is safer for the girls who face early marriages and pregnancies.

Growing up is hardly ever easy. But we can enable young women around the world to learn and grow in safety by preventing teen pregnancy. Helping them fulfill their dreams of a good life is the right thing to do, isn't it?