BANGKOK – Days away from giving birth and living apart from her family, 16-year-old Ying is one of a growing number of Thai teenagers to fall pregnant every year in a country where sex education is focused on the married.
Despite its anything-goes image, Thailand has a conservative streak, meaning that young people are told to abstain from intercourse altogether instead of being educated about using protection, a situation that experts say has driven soaring rates of teenage pregnancy.
Ying, whose name has been changed to protect her, did ask her boyfriend to use a condom, but “he is a man, he did not listen. He used some once 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 I would be embarrassed among my 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 falling as expected, according to Caspar Peek, country representative for the U.N.’s Population Fund. “Instead of going down, as you would expect to happen with higher levels of literacy, higher levels of development, money etc., 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 neighboring Cambodia, but 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 true figure of pregnancies among the under 20s is thought to be double that, with many girls opting for an abortion — a procedure that is illegal in Thailand under almost all circumstances.
“It is an increasingly important problem,” said Pradit, adding that 12 percent of teenage mothers get pregnant a second time before they reach 20.
He said society is “very conservative” in Thailand, where people “deny” issues of sexual activity among the young.
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 6 children per woman 40 years ago with family planning programs aimed at married couples, said Peek, who added that school teachers are “often 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 by June.
Some girls, like Ying, are told to leave by their families because of the stigma of their pregnancy.
“Most of them came here because they have nowhere else to go. Their families rejected them,” said the Bangkok APSW shelter’s psychiatrist, Kantanick Nirothon.
He said many of the boarders at the center had been raped, often by a close relation.
One of them was 14-year-old Pook, who clasped her 11-day-old son against her chest. “I was raped by my uncle,” she said matter-of-factly.
She has decided not to give up her baby for adoption, but to take some of the courses offered by the center — which include data processing, embroidery and massage — to help her support her child alone. “My parents do not have money, so they told me to study here and take care of the baby at the same time,” she said.