Bigger Than Boxes: Teen Motherhood in Thailand


Bigger Than Boxes presented by GAD (Gender and Development Committee)
Kat Giannini, 129 YinD

Overview: Teen Motherhood

How does pregnancy at an early age affect one’s life outcomes? The results of teen pregnancy, defined as pregnancy among those age 13 to 19, is multifaceted, impacting health, education, and economic attainment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 globally. Globally, 3.9 million pregnant adolescent will undergo an unsafe abortion.[1]

Though fear of pregnancy and uncertainty on how to prevent it can be a source of stress in the lives of all adolescent, the consequences often fall disproportionately on women.

Teen Motherhood in a Thai Context

In recent years, Thailand has witnessed an increasing teen pregnancy rate, with the percentage of women who become mothers before age 20 rising from 12.9% to 16.8% from 2003 to 2013.[2] In Southeast Asia, only neighboring Laos has a higher rate.

Experiences of teen mothers varies across Thailand, but some general conclusions can be drawn. Nearly half do not live with their partner, and about a third to not live with their children. Although community exclusion is fairly rare, some report severe reprimands from guardians, as well as feelings of shame, failure, and guilt. [3]

Teen mothers in Thailand report financial strain as a major source of stress. Thai children are expected to show their parents “boon khoon” (บุญคุณ). Boon Khoon has no direct translation, but is paying one’s debt to those who have helped us, all done with a sense of appreciative obligation. Men can show boon khoon through becoming monks, but women show boon khoon through financially supporting her parents. Hence, a daughter’s earning potential remains highly important in Thai society. This leaves teen mothers with a dual expectation of providing for both her child and parents. [4]

One potential result of this dual expectation is even when parents are emotionally supportive, a daughter’s lost earning power can strain a family. A study in Buriram province found that though teen mothers report low levels of family exclusion, they face parental disappointment over their lost education and career potentials, often leading to feelings of guilt and depression.[5] Indeed, nationally representative studies suggest a strong correlation between teen motherhood and insufficient income.[6]

Reproductive Health Education: More Than Preventing Pregnancy

In Thailand, various contraceptives may be purchased without a prescription. Primary care clinics in more urban areas often offer free condoms. However, many teens do not purchase or pick up contraceptives due to social stigma.


Though stymieing rising teen pregnancy rates has been identified as a national priority, instructional hours on sex education are limited to eight hours per year. [7]Further, lessons often approach reproductive health from a biological angle, with little emphasis on gender, sexual rights, communication, and diversity. Studies suggest that this approach can impact how youth view issues related to reproduction and relationships. A review of Thailand’s reproductive health education conducted by the both the Ministry of Education and UNICEF found 28 to 41 percent of students agreed with the statement “A husband has the right to hit his wife if she is unfaithful.” Only 53 to 66 percent of youth felt they could insist on condom use. The review suggested that an over-emphasis on teaching through lectures and a narrow teaching scope contributed to such attitudes among students.[8]

Conclusions/lessons learned

Addressing a rising teen pregnancy rate, whether in Thailand or elsewhere, requires one to consider that reproductive health is more than knowing how to correctly use a condom. Considering how gender, sexual diversity, and sexual rights impact human sexuality cultivates a more comprehensive approach to teaching reproductive health. Working alongside Thai counterparts, Peace Corps volunteers are in a unique position to help expand the scope of reproductive health education beyond the requisite eight hours. Whether discussing what a healthy relationship looks like, how to properly take hormonal birth control, or how to communicate personal boundaries, volunteer work is replete with opportunity to help all youth become informed, confident, and capable of self-advocacy.

Click here to find a classroom activity pertaining to this topic.

[1] Adolescent Pregnancy.” World Health Organization. February 23, 2018. Accessed September 10, 2018.

[2]  a-Ngiamsak, Piyanart. “The Life Experiences of Unmarried Teenage Mothers in Thailand.” University of Queensland, January 2016, 91-114. doi:10.14264/uql.2016.449.

[3]Thaopan, Wacharaphol Wiwat. “Teenage pregnancy and social dilemma in a province of northeastern Thailand.” Journal of Public Health and Development Vol. 15 No. 2: 43-54

[4] Chanthasukh, Sansanee. “Influencing Factors towards Thai Adolescents’ Decision Making on Contraceptive Use: Preliminary Results” “The 13th International Conference on Thai Studies: Chiang Mai, Thailand” 1-19

[5] a-Ngiamsak, Piyanart. “The Life Experiences of Unmarried Teenage Mothers in Thailand.” University of Queensland, January 2016, 91-114. doi:10.14264/uql.2016.449.

[6] Isaranurug, Sirikul. “Differences in Socio-Economic Status, Service Utilization, and Pregnancy Outcomes between Teenage and Adult Mothers.” Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand89, no. 2 (2006): 145-51. doi:10.18411/a-2017-023.

[7] Lefevre, Amy Sawitta. “Thailand Struggles to Curb High Teen Pregnancy Rate.” Reuters. March 08, 2013. Accessed September 12, 2018.

[8] UNICEF. “Review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Thailand.” Center for Health Policy Studies, Mahidol University, May 2016.


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