Teen pregnancy continues to be a major concern for many societies around the world, sadly Thailand is one of them. Many factors have been blamed, including insufficient sex education in schools, limited access to reproductive health services, adolescent sexual curiosity, and, in the worst cases, falling victim to sexual violence or forced sex.
Women who engage in premarital sex are also stigmatized by cultural norms.
According to the most recent UNFPA Thailand data, 56,074 pregnancies in girls aged 15-19 were recorded in 2020, accounting for 10% of all pregnancies in that year. There were also 1,783 pregnancies in girls aged 10 to 14, the majority of whom were victims of sexual assault.
According to UNFPA Thailand, 25% of Thai teenage mothers did not give birth in their home provinces. As a result, locating the majority of teen mothers in the country, whether in urban or rural areas, is somewhat difficult.
Overall, teen pregnancy is declining in Thailand, owing primarily to the implementation of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Act in 2016, which also resulted in a collaborative framework of six related ministries to combat teen pregnancies.
Education, Higher Education, Public Health, Interior, Labor, and Social Development and Human Security are the six ministries. The underlying societal issues, on the other hand, are far more complicated.
Dr. Olarik Musigavong, a renowned specialist in women’s health and a member of The Medical Council of Thailand’s committee, told Thai PBS that most teen mothers he has spoken with never imagined this would happen to them. One of the reasons, he observed, is that teachers frequently lecture students about avoiding premarital sex, giving them the impression that the topic is unrelated to them.
“They had no idea that having sex would make them pregnant,” he explained. “They also never think that pregnancy or raising a child is a problem, because most of the time, they are still in school and at home, so they do not understand about earning an income, or even how to take care of others. They don’t realize what they’re in for once they become pregnant because they don’t know.”
Dr. Olarik changed his communication technique when speaking to young students after noticing the problem, along with an effective punchline that not only grabs their attention, but also makes them realize the consequences of having sex during their school years.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that when you tell your students, ‘You’ll have to drop out of high school when you get pregnant and you won’t be able to find a job or earn a high income,’ nobody listens,” he says.
“However, when I said, ‘You will be dumped by your boyfriend because you are pregnant,’ all of the schoolgirls stared at me, wondering what I would say next.”
Another technique is to ask simple questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Alternatively, ‘Who is your idol?’
“Some would say they want to be football players or doctors, knowing that they will have to study and practice hard in order to achieve their goals. ‘You know getting pregnant in your teens will make you stumble on your way to your dreams, right?’ I’d say. That’s when they realized there was a real problem with unintended pregnancy.”
“We would only learn about our bodies, organs, or the steps to pregnancy, but nothing else in greater detail,” Maneerat recalled of how sex education was taught to her when she was in school.
Sex education in Thai schools has long been criticized, with many people believing that it focuses too much on anatomy and not enough on consent. Traditional Thai cultural norms also make it difficult to discuss the subject openly.
Siriluck Chiengwong, Head of the UNFPA Thailand Office, explains that sex education in Thailand is insufficient because it only teaches human body parts and how pregnancy occurs.
“It doesn’t teach about what leads to a sexual relationship or even when you should start protecting yourself,” she said, adding that teachers are hesitant to reveal all the details due to Thai cultural norms.
When sex education is inadequate, it leads to a lack of understanding among teenagers, particularly regarding the consequences of becoming pregnant at a young age.
As a result, Siriluck proposes that comprehensive sex education, which includes topics like autonomy, consent, preventing sexual violence, and gender equality, be included in Thai school curricula.
“Sex can and must be discussed, not in the sense of encouraging them to have sex, but of providing them with knowledge about how to protect yourself when you decide to have sex, and if not, how to say no.”
Access to sexual and reproductive health services is another issue that contributes to teen pregnancy. Despite improvements in such services, what remains problematic is patient awareness, including accessibility and affordability for various groups of patients, as well as their own rights to prevent unintended pregnancies.
“If we don’t provide them with information or provide them with adequate access to reproductive health services, it all leads to unplanned pregnancies,” Siriluck explained.
“While prevention is important, how to solve the problem is equally important. If unplanned pregnancies do occur, what can we do to ensure a healthy pregnancy for these teen mothers, and how can we help them return to school or find work?”
Teen pregnancies frequently jeopardize their future, particularly their education. Unfortunately, most pregnant students in Thailand are either expelled or ostracized by their teachers and classmates, putting them under pressure to drop out.
In February of this year, a new ministerial edict was issued prohibiting schools from expelling pregnant students or forcing them to transfer to other educational institutions.
UNFPA Thailand supports this initiative because education is a basic human right, and not having access to education due to their pregnancy limits their opportunities. However, a strong support system must be in place to ensure that they can go about their lives without being stigmatized.
“No one wants to see their family members become teen mothers,” Siriluck explained. ‘If we have empathy, imagine that teen mother is our daughter or niece; would you want anyone to insult her? They are all human beings, just like the rest of us.”
Despite this, some people are opposed to the move, believing that allowing pregnant teenagers to stay in school will encourage more young people to engage in sex and become pregnant. Siriluck, on the other hand, does not believe that such a “trend” would ever be encouraged, given the pregnant students’ ability to prepare for exams or school projects in comparison to other students.
“If pregnant teens don’t receive a proper education, how are they going to live for the rest of their lives? “What does she do for a living?” Siriluck questions those who oppose pregnant teens returning to school.
“What the ministerial edict provides is the fundamental right to education, so I don’t believe it will set a trend of increasing numbers of pregnant adolescent students in schools.”
Though the ministerial edict exists to protect their fundamental rights, Dr. Olarik is concerned about how schools implement them. Based on his experience counseling pregnant schoolgirls, he claims that some of them felt that school was not a happy place for them from the start. When they became pregnant, they became a target for shaming by their teachers and peers, which eventually pushed them to drop out of school.
“However, some schools have wonderful teachers and classmates who are very supportive of pregnant students,” Dr. Olarik said. “As a result, I’d like to see schools that give pregnant students a second chance. Even if teen pregnancy causes them to stumble in life, it is not the end of the world; however, everyone must be supportive and assist them in getting back on track.”
While the women’s health specialist emphasizes the importance of education, no one wants to see teen mothers or their offspring end up committing crimes, or becoming victims of drug abuse or prostitution when they grow up, simply because they did not receive a proper education or upbringing. As a result, Dr. Olarik believes that families play an important role in providing love and care for their children in order for them to grow into good citizens.
“Teen pregnancies are just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Olarik explained. “I believe that the effects on society are the most important considerations. When it comes to teen pregnancies or children born into broken families, it often leads to more problems, such as domestic violence, drug abuse, and crime. This is because those children are frequently neglected.”
Though unintended pregnancy among teenagers is a complex issue, Siriluck believes that a multi-pronged approach is likely the best way to address it. Aside from preventive measures, we must also remove the social stigma associated with pregnant adolescent girls, provide positive emotional support, and encourage them to continue their education.
“To be clear, we do not encourage unplanned adolescent pregnancies,” Siriluck says, “but if it does occur, families, schools, and society must give them another chance, understand them, and allow them to start over.”