The global incidence of girls under 18 giving birth has declined steadily for decades, but with 7.3 million children born to teenage mothers each year, the costs to their health and society remain staggering, according to a U.N. population study released Wednesday.
In the State of World Population 2013, the world body observes that 95% of the teens giving birth each year live in the developing world, where access to birth control and protections against early marriage and sexual violence are weakest.
Early pregnancy brings great risk to the health and welfare of teenage girls, the report asserts. It also deprives a national economy of the benefits of better educated young women who enter the workforce instead of staying home to rear children, the report said.
In a large economy like China, for example, the estimated annual cost of adolescent pregnancy amounts to 1% of gross domestic product, or $124 billion, according to World Bank data, the report said. And in poorer, smaller states -- Uganda for example -- the cost of early pregnancy can be as much as 30% of GDP, the study said.
But the problems arising with teen pregnancy need to be addressed with a more holistic approach, rather than targeting girls' behavior, said U.N. Population Fund executive director Babatunde Osotimehin.
"Very young girls are especially vulnerable to exploitation, child marriage and sexual coercion and violence," Osotimehin said, adding that "the tendency in many parts of the world is to blame the girl for becoming pregnant."
Teen births have declined worldwide by about 20% since 1970, according to an age-specific fertility chart accompanying the report.
The report also referenced a study by UNICEF released in March that estimated the number of underage marriages at 39,000 a day.
But citing the statistic that 70,000 teenage girls die in childbirth or from pregnancy complications each year, Osotimehin told reporters at a news conference in London that adolescent pregnancy remains a daunting problem.
"Whether it's going up or down is not the issue," he said, calling the 7.3 million births to underage girls "huge."