A pregnant woman in Caracas

A pregnant woman wearing a face mask walks past a mural in Caracas, Venezuela on January 19, 2021. (Photo: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images)

121 Million Unintended Pregnancies Per Year Reveals 'Global Failure' on Women's Rights: Report

"For too many, the most life-altering reproductive choice is no choice at all," said the United Nations Population Fund.

The United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency on Wednesday said global policymakers have utterly failed to uphold women's rights as it reported that despite the wide availability of contraception in wealthy countries, nearly half of all pregnancies around the world--121 million per year--are unintended.

"Nothing is more fundamental to bodily autonomy than the ability to decide whether or not to become pregnant," said the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in its new report, titledSeeing the Unseen. "Yet for too many, the most life-altering reproductive choice is no choice at all."

A lack of sexual and reproductive healthcare and education and gender inequality are major drivers of unintended pregnancies, which are especially common in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa according to a separate report released last week by the World Health Organization.

"By putting the power to make this most fundamental decision squarely in the hands of women and girls, societies can ensure that motherhood is an aspiration and not an inevitability."

According to the UNFPA, 23% of women report feeling unable to reject demands for sex, while an estimated 257 million women around the world are not using safe, effective forms of birth control despite wanting to avoid pregnancy--in some cases because contraceptives that suit their circumstances are not available to them, and in others because of rampant misinformation.

The agency surveyed women from countries around the world, finding that many women in both the Global North and the Global South avoid using contraceptives due to beliefs that they cause infertility, cancer, and other health conditions.

A 44-year-old respondent in Algeria told the UNFPA that she had learned "condoms should only be used for sex outside marriage, the pill makes you sterile, the IUD causes hemorrhages."

According to the report, more than a quarter of women who don't use contraceptives say they want to avoid side effects.

"We need more research into other kinds of contraceptives, including those with fewer side effects and male contraceptives," the UNFPA said.

Harmful societal norms regarding women's control of their bodies, shaming in health services, and sexual violence--which often increases in places experiencing conflicts--also contribute to high rates of unintended pregnancy.

"I didn't have sexuality education like they have today," another woman said. "You wanted to ask, and the answer was, 'Shut up, you shouldn't ask that.'"

Governments around the world must establish "comprehensive sexuality education," the agency said.

"Done properly, this education can combat myths and misperceptions, and it can promote communication, consent, and respectful relationships," according to the report. "It can address gender and power and teach adolescents about confidential contraceptive care."

Natalia Kanem, executive director of UNFPA, called the report a "wakeup call" regarding an "invisible crisis."

The "staggering number of unintended pregnancies represents a global failure to uphold women and girls' basic human rights," Kanem said in a statement.

Unintended pregnancies can have serious health and safety consequences for women in countries where they can't access safe abortion care. More than 60% of unintended pregnancies result in abortions, and around the world, "a staggering 45% of all abortions are unsafe."

High rates of unintended pregnancies can have "profound consequences for societies, women and girls, and global health," the agency said.

Women and girls around the world "see other opportunities dwindle" after being "robbed of the chance to choose whether or not to become pregnant."

Many girls are forced to leave school or their jobs, increasing the chances that their families will face poverty.

"The slide into poverty can be steep and swift, with poorer nutrition and less schooling following close behind," the UNFPA reported.

With 6% or more of the world's women experiencing an unintended pregnancy each year, the agency said, the rate "begs an uncomfortable question: Do these societies fully value the potential of women beyond their reproductive capacities?"

The report called on policymakers to:

  • Prioritize bodily autonomy and ensure women and girls are empowered to prevent these pregnancies in the first place;
  • Strengthen health and education systems, which have a human rights obligation to provide accurate information about reproduction and contraception and should instill in young people the ability to articulate their choices and goals and the duty to respect those of their partners;
  • Ensure contraceptives are accessible, affordable, and available in a range of forms acceptable to those using them;
  • Invest in research to better understand the causes and consequences of unintended pregnancy and to spearhead contraceptive technologies that allay women's anxieties over side effects and broaden the options available for men; and
  • Address justice systems that too often fail to hold perpetrators of sexual violence and coercion to account, leaving survivors to bear the stigma of both unwanted sex and the consequences of a potential pregnancy.

"By putting the power to make this most fundamental decision squarely in the hands of women and girls, societies can ensure that motherhood is an aspiration and not an inevitability," concluded the UNFPA chief.

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