Laos’ Teen Pregnancy Rates Highest in Southeast Asia, Study Reveals Key Factors

Representational image (Photo: BNN Breaking)

Recent findings have once again confirmed that Laos has the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy in Southeast Asia.

A study conducted by Marie Habito, a senior research officer at Burnet Institute, an Australian-based medical research institute, titled Understanding diverse pathways to adolescent pregnancy in Lao People’s Democratic Republic,” revealed a range of contributing factors to this alarming data.

Acceptance of child marriages, limited sexual health knowledge, power imbalances in relationships, alcohol-induced coercion into sexual intercourse, and girls’ lack of autonomy are identified as primary contributors to under-18 pregnancies.

In addition to these factors, an officer from the Lao Youth Union, who opted to remain anonymous, disclosed that teenage pregnancy is most prevalent in remote areas.

“Instances of pregnancies under 18 are most common in rural areas, particularly among Lao young girls from ethnic groups,” the officer stated. “Some couples having children at an early age can be attributed to various factors, including the need for an additional workforce in the family. Some families also view early marriage as part of their tradition.”

“We noticed numerous cases of Lao girls becoming pregnant before 18, often because of a lack of sexual knowledge. Another significant factor is that many young Lao girls struggle to find guidance on family planning,” further noted an advisor from the Vientiane Women and Youth Center for Health and Development (VWYC).

The advisor emphasized the challenges young Lao girls face in seeking advice on sexual health and mentioned that the VWYC is working closely and “discreetly” with Lao women in schools and universities to ensure a comfortable environment to discuss such matters.

The experience on the ground echoes the research’s findings, which revealed that sexual health information is often perceived as relevant only for married individuals, leading to a lack of awareness among unmarried girls. 

In almost half of the cases in the study, early marriages were driven by the desire to evade the stigma of having a child outside of wedlock. Frequently, upon discovery by their families, boyfriends proposed marriage or parents arranged unions to avoid social embarrassment or fines imposed by the village.

But post-marriage things don’t always go better. 

The study also exposed the influence of male partners in reproductive decision-making, with many young pregnancies occurring due to the reluctance to use condoms post-marriage. This hesitation stems from associating condom use with instances of infidelity.

In this context, Habito further stressed the importance of understanding girls’ personal experiences to develop effective policies. She highlighted the necessity of comprehensive sexual education for adolescents, addressing harmful substance use, and developing programs that tackle socio-cultural and financial factors driving child marriages and early unions.

Further addressing the issue from a local perspective, the VWYC revealed the center’s ongoing collaboration with numerous schools and universities to educate Lao youth about reproductive health, making sexual health knowledge a primary focus.

It is evident that Laos continues to grapple with the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy in the region. From limited sexual health knowledge to societal pressures, the challenges faced by young Lao girls are complex to navigate. However, amidst these difficulties, local centers and organizations are actively engaged in collaborative efforts to educate Lao youth on reproductive health and push for comprehensive policies to address the root causes as well as support the well-being of young girls across the country.