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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Mar. 24) - Teenage pregnancy is a major problem in the Marshall Islands, where births to women 19 and under account for nearly 20 percent of all babies born in the country, say government leaders here in Majuro.

A new pilot project with the support of the Asian Development Bank is targeting the high teen pregnancy rate through what is being called a "gender sensitive budgeting process."

If the government wants education and health care improvements, then it has to budget for spending in these areas — and get its ministries to cooperate with one another, Finance Minister Brenson Wase said to a workshop this week of government program managers that focused on discussing how to address social and health issues through the budget.

In order to insure the national budget reflects government aims in these areas "ministries need to be aware of gender issues and understand how to integrate them into our public expenditure management," Wase said.

From 1996 through 2001, babies born to teenagers accounted for between 16.2 percent and 20.6 percent of all babies born. In 2000 and 2001, it remained nearly the same at 18.7 and 18.3 percent, respectively.

Even girls younger than 15 years of age are having babies in the Marshall Islands, Jonathan Santos, the Marshall Islands health planner, reported to the workshop. Since statistics started being monitored in 1997 through 2001, 20 girls aged 12-14 have had babies.

"Studies show that teen pregnancy has far-reaching affects to the development of both mothers and children," Santos said. Teenagers tend to have more problems than older women when their babies are born, he said.

Although teen mothers produced only 18 percent of all babies born in 2000, these same babies accounted for almost half — 47 percent — of all prematurely born babies in the Marshall Islands, and 33 percent of all babies born below the normal birth weights for babies.

Wase said the teen pregnancy problem cuts across the responsibility of numerous ministries and agencies, so requires a coordinated response.

"Working across ministries is not common," Wase acknowledged to the participants. "But by the end of this workshop, I hope you will be more familiar and comfortable with the approach."

Last year, three Marshallese women attended an in-depth workshop in Australia whose aim was integrating gender and social issues into budgeting. From that workshop, the three participants — Erma Myazoe, Ione deBrum and Marie Maddison — together with Ministry of Finance project coordinator Ann Marie Muller, developed the pilot project to concentrate on teen pregnancy.

Wase said teen pregnancy fuels overall population growth, which in turn puts pressure on the government to address job and training opportunities, schools, health services, environment, resource development and infrastructure. Because of this, teen pregnancy doesn’t fall under one ministry’s jurisdiction.

It will require much consultation and negotiation among the Ministries of Education, Health, Internal Affairs, Resources and Development, and Finance, the Chief Secretary’s office and non-governmental organizations, Wase said.

March 24, 2003

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