Earlier this week, thousands of activists, humanitarian leaders, journalists and women's health experts from around the world gathered at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, to discuss the global state of female sexual and reproductive health.
As part of the conference, the United Nations Population Fund and the children's development organization Plan International are launching their online #childmothers campaign to highlight the experiences of teenage mothers.
In Copenhagen, a moving exhibit by photographer Pieter ten Hoopen and journalist Sofia Klemming Nordenskiöld tells the stories of several child mothers from different countries, each with their own struggles and hopes for the future.
This is Ana*, 15, who lives with her 4-month-old daughter Karen*, as well as her parents and two sisters in an urban area of Colombia with high crime rates and scant police protection. Ana was in eighth grade when she got pregnant. She experienced pre-eclampsia in her last trimester, a dangerous condition often marked by hypertension and high blood pressure, which can be fatal for both mother and child.
According to the exhibit's UNFPA press release, Ana's difficult experience with pregnancy is common among the 2 million girls under age 15 who give birth each year. Because their bodies are often not fully developed, they can face increased health risks during pregnancy and childbirth, including fistula, a painful tearing of the tissue between the vagina and rectum or bladder. According to 2011 reports by the World Health Organization, more than 25% of women treated for fistulas in Ethiopia and Nigeria were pregnant before the age of 15, while more than 50% got pregnant before the age of 18.
Now, Ana is struggling to complete her studies in the hopes of providing a better future for her baby.
"I am back in school again, and during the day my aunt helps me take care of Karen since my parents are working. It's hard to study and be a mother at the same time. I have to do my homework, wash Karen's clothes, and bathe her. It can be complicated," Ana told Klemming Nordenskiöld. "I want to study hard to become a professional and give something back to my daughter.".
While Ana is struggling to balance motherhood with school, most teen mothers around the world don't even manage to complete high school. In the United States, for instance, only 40% of teen moms graduate from high school, according to the National Conference of State Legislature.
Across the ocean, in rural Zambia, 14-year-old Mulenga* also worries about whether she'll be able to finish school as she once hoped.
Mulenga lives with her 5-week-old daughter Felicity*, her parents, her ten siblings and her father's second wife. Before she got pregnant, she dreamed of becoming a doctor — but the lack of sex education at her local school left her ignorant about her own body and her options for reproductive health care.
"I had no idea how you become pregnant. I didn't even know I was pregnant. We didn't learn about those things in school," Mulenga told Klemming Nordenskiöld. "It was my mother who told me I wasn't looking well."
Often, teen mothers are themselves victims of child marriage. According to the advocacy network Girls Not Brides, one out of every three girls born in the developing world are married before they turn 18. Girls like Amira*, a 15-year-old Syrian living with her husband and two children in a Jordanian refugee camp, were married as young teenagers.
Amira got married at 13 and had to stop going to school because of the Syrian Civil War. Both of her young children were born in Jordan at the refugee camp's maternity clinic.
"It's so hard to take care of a child when you're a child yourself," Amira told Klemming Nordenskiöld. "Plus, I have to take care my husband too. I don't have any free time for myself. My children take up much more time than all the housekeeping. My newborn baby cries a lot. Sometimes, I don't know why he's crying. He just does."
The photo exhibit in Copenhagen tells many personal stories, all of which underline a common theme around the world: the dire need for increased access to reproductive health, sex education and human rights resources for underage girls.
*First names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.