“The Stories Behind the Statistics” is a series we developed for the Gates Foundation blog, “Impatient Optimists.” The following post is the first in our three-part series on contraception. The original post, located on “Impatient Optimists,” is available here.

Over the past couple of months, in our Stories Behind the Statistics series, we shared with readers the overwhelming rate of adolescent pregnancy and its devastating effect on the lives of girls. One of the commitments made on July 11, 2012 at the Family Planning Summit was to increase access to contraceptives for young women and girls.  These global commitments could not be timelier in a world where approximately 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year; one million die or suffer serious injury or disease as a result of pregnancy; and millions more face discrimination in their communities, are forced to drop-out of school, and face social isolation as a result of unplanned or unintended pregnancy.

It is estimated that as many as half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended and a disproportionate amount of unintended pregnancies occur among young, unmarried girls who often lack access to contraception. Approximately 85-95 percent of sexually active young women who do not use contraceptives become pregnant within one year of initiating intercourse.

In some regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, South-central Asia, and Southeast Asia the unmet need for contraception among adolescents is as high as 68 percent.  Young people face multiple barriers to accessing contraceptives including lack of information, social stigma, provider bias, lack of confidentiality, and policy restrictions.

Lack of information about contraceptives, and myths related to side effects, are commonly reported by young people as reasons for not using contraceptives.  Young people need information, skills, and products to make informed decisions about how they can protect themselves from pregnancy in a way that is consistent with their own values. Young people also face multiple medical and institutional barriers to receiving contraceptive services, including provider bias, parental consent restrictions, notification laws, and unnecessary medical tests such as pelvic exams.

In many societies, young women have limited control over their contraceptive choice. Often they do not have the power to negotiate contraceptive use with their partners; their family planning decisions might be made for them by parents, partners, spouses, or in-laws. Married adolescents face particular barriers to contraceptive access including increased societal pressure to have children, fear of their spouse, or lack of transportation to health services.

Fulfilling the unmet need for family planning among adolescents could prevent an estimated 7.4 million unintended pregnancies.  Preventing unintended pregnancies among adolescents would reduce the number of maternal deaths as well as improve educational and employment opportunities for young women.  Expanding young people’s access to contraceptives means giving girls and young women the choice to determine their own future.

In the next two posts of this series we will hear from two young people–one from Zimbabwe and one from the United States– about why contraceptive access is important to them.

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