Pregnant teens, swelling in numbers

THAILAND - Just days away from giving birth and living apart from her family, 16-year-old Ying is one of a growing number of teenagers becoming pregnant every year in Thailand, a country where sex education is focused on the married.

Despite its "anything-goes" image, Thailand is conservative in many ways in that its young people are told to abstain from intercourse altogether, instead of being educated about using protection.

This is a situation that experts say has driven soaring rates of teenage pregnancy.

Ying, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had on many occasions told her boyfriend to use a condom but "he is a man and refuses to listen" she said.

"There were a few times when he did use the condom when I was pregnant ... but it was too late," said the soft-spoken girl, who moved into sheltered accommodation at Bangkok's Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women (APSW) when she was six months pregnant.

"My parents were afraid that I would be embarrassed among friends, so they told me to stay here," said Ying, from Pathum Thani province north of Bangkok.

She now has no contact with the baby's father.

The adolescent birthrate has continued to rise for the last eight years, instead of the expected fall, said Caspar Peek, country representative for the UN's Population Fund.

"Instead of going down, as you would expect to happen with higher levels of literacy, higher levels of development and money, the levels have actually gone up," he said.

According to the United Nations, the birthrate among Thai teenagers was 47 per 1,000 girls from 2006 to 2010 - roughly in line with neighbouring Cambodia, but certainly higher than Malaysia's 14.

Thai health minister Pradit Sintavanarong said there were 130,000 births to teenage mothers in the country in 2012.

But he said the actual figure of pregnancies among the under-20s was thought to be double that figure, with many girls opting for an abortion - a procedure that is illegal in Thailand.

"It is becoming a problem that needs to be addressed," said Pradit, adding that 12 per cent of teenage mothers get pregnant a second time before they reach the age of 20.

He said society was "very conservative" in Thailand where people "deny" issues of sexual activity among the young.

"They think teenagers should not have sex and there are no two ways about it," he said.

Thailand has a low overall birthrate of just 1.5 or 1.6 births per woman, showing that access to contraception is not the problem.

It has successfully reduced its birthrate from six children per woman 40 years ago with family planning programmes aimed only at married couples, said Peek, who added that school teachers were "uncomfortable" giving sex education classes.

To mitigate this - and the reluctance of parents to broach the subject with their children - the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand has launched a campaign to educate 80,000 teenagers that will run until June.

"We cannot tell people not to have sex ... it is only natural, but they should know the consequences of their actions and be prepared," said Somchai Kamthong, the group's director of information, after giving a talk at a school in Bangkok.

The talk is part of a programme for those aged between 16 and 19 years.

The teens some with balloons stuffed under their T-shirts, laughed as two of their classmates put a condom on a dummy penis.

"There is an average of two students dropping out of school per semester because they were pregnant," said Jittrakorn Kanphaka, a counsellor at the college.

Some girls, like Ying, are told to leave home by their families because of the "stigma and shame" of the pregnancy.

"Most of them come here because they have nowhere else to go. Their families have rejected them," said the Bangkok APSW shelter's psychiatrist Kantanick Nirothon.

He said some of the boarders at the centre had come there because they were rape victims.

The crimes were usually committed by their relatives.

Fourteen-year-old Pook, who held her 11-day-old son against her chest, said that she was raped by an uncle.

She did not want to give up her baby for adoption, but decided to pursue one of the many courses offered by the centre -data processing, embroidery stitching and massage therapy - that will enable her to take on a job and support her child.

"My parents don't have money so they told me to take up a course here and take care of the baby at the same time," she said.