The health consequences of adolescent sexual and fertility behavior in sub-Saharan Africa

Stud Fam Plann. 1998 Jun;29(2):210-32.


This article reviews the literature on health consequences of adolescent sexual behavior and child-bearing in sub-Saharan Africa, and the social and cultural context in which they occur. It suggests that, in addressing the most serious health sequelae, sexual intercourse that occurs in early marriage and premaritally must both be considered. Some limitations of the data are noted. Despite the excess risk to which adolescents are exposed, due both to custom and age-related vulnerability, differences between health effects among adult and adolescent women are often differences in degree. They are attributable to behavioral, social, and biological causes, exist in traditional and nontraditional settings, in union and out of union, and are exacerbated by declining ages at menarche, pressures of HIV/AIDS and STDs, and a dearth of appropriate services-especially for young people. Some current interventions are discussed, and the need for policy as well as medical intervention is stressed.

PIP: A review of the literature on the health consequences of adolescent sexual behavior and childbearing in sub-Saharan Africa reveals substantial contextual variation. Among the more general factors impacting on early sexual onset and childbirth are younger age at menarche, erosion of social and cultural controls on premarital sex, the abandonment of pubertal rites of passage, and more widespread schooling. Childbearing at young ages has been associated with pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, anemia and hemorrhage, obstructed and prolonged labor, infection, and higher rates of infant morbidity and mortality. Both cultural and biologic factors elevate the likelihood of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, among female adolescents. Many sequelae common to all adolescents are exacerbated by cultural practices such as genital mutilation. It is often assumed that the health problems of adolescent females will be addressed by general improvements in women's health services. However, the level of care required by adolescents who are delivering a first child is considerably greater than that required by healthy adult women. Moreover, may women's health services are hostile to teens who initiate coitus out of wedlock and may even deny treatment. Ultimately, prevention may depend more on changes in public policy and consideration of cultural context than upon specific programs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior* / ethnology
  • Adolescent Behavior* / psychology
  • Adult
  • Africa South of the Sahara
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Female
  • Fertility*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marriage / ethnology
  • Marriage / psychology
  • Marriage / statistics & numerical data
  • Sexual Behavior* / ethnology
  • Sexual Behavior* / psychology
  • Sexual Behavior* / statistics & numerical data
  • Social Change
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Women's Health*