Teen Birth Rate High In Micronesia

by Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety): August 12, 2002 - In the Marshall Islands and in Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, nearly one of every five babies is born to a teenager.

The continuing high teen birth rate worries both health and education officials who say that for many girls, a pregnancy marks the end of their formal education, greatly reducing future opportunities.

In response to this Micronesian population problem, the United Nations Population Fund is funding a survey in both the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia in an effort to identify why the teen pregnancy rate is so high and what can be done to reduce births to teen mothers.

Births to teen-age girls are not a rarity on Pohnpei," said Eugenia Samuel, a staff of the Pohnpei-based Micronesian Seminar, a Jesuit-supported think tank on social issues. "According to one of the administrators at Pohnpei's public high school, five or six girls get pregnant every year. More surprising than this is that just as many elementary school girls as high school students are getting pregnant each year."

Getting a job without at least a high school diploma is difficult in these islands with growing populations. "It's becoming harder and harder for people who lack a good educational background to make a living," Samuel said.

A recent employment survey in the Marshall Islands funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior showed that Marshall Islanders with lower levels of educational attainment had significantly higher rates of unemployment. The "statistical analysis reveals that staying in school really does pay off," wrote survey authors Benjamin Graham and Charles Paul. "Interestingly, analysis of the 1980 and 1998 high school graduates versus those who only finished the 11th grade reveals that graduates enjoyed notably higher rates of employment. This clearly indicates that making the effort to finish that final year of high school is very worthwhile."

But in Marshall Islands public high schools and the Catholic high school, students are expelled for one year if they become pregnant. The Catholic school also suspends the father for a year. "We are not trying to punish them, but we want them to take responsibility for their mistakes," said Fr. Rich McAuliffe, S.J., the pastor at the Catholic church.

Birth rate statistics show that both Pohnpei and the Marshall Islands have the highest percentage of teen-age mothers, with 19 percent of all births between 1996 and 2000 accounted for by teens in both islands. In Yap and Chuuk, both islands in the Federated States of Micronesia, the teen birth rate is 13 and 10 percent, respectively. Kosrae, the other FSM state, and Palau had the lowest rates for the 1996-2000 period of nine percent.

Marshall Islands Family Planning chief nurse Maypol Briand said that she's seen about 200 pregnant teen-agers in the first seven months of the year in Majuro, demonstrating that the rate of teen pregnancy is not dropping off.

"I feel that the teen-agers are really not aware of what we have in the form of contraceptives," Briand said. "There is no education on safe sex within the schools."

Some parents are blaming teen pregnancy on the rapidly westernizing way of life in the islands, Samuel said. Throughout Micronesia people's behavior has become much more westernized as a result of exposure to television, movies, alcohol and the outside world. "This can mean just about anything: boys and girls hanging out together at school, walking hand in hand down the streets, attending school functions together," she said. "Some point to the changes in women's clothing as an example of the most dangerous of these changes. Girls who once wore long dresses now wear pants or short skirts."

The combination of a breakdown in the extended family support structure and the fact that adults in urban centers in Micronesia are busier than a few generations ago add to the problem, Samuel said. She believes a big part of the problem is that most parents in the islands are not taking the time to talk to their daughters and to listen to their needs and problems. "A strong relationship between mothers and daughters might, in the end, be the strongest way of protecting them and teaching to make smart decisions," Samuel said.