Monday, December 9, 2013

Child Pregnancy on the Rise in Guatemala

By: Sarah Volpenhein
Produced & edited by: Tim Tripp

Guatemala has one of the highest rates for adolescent pregnancy in Latin America, with about one quarter of all newborns birthed by adolescents.
The number of pregnant girls has been steadily climbing since 2009 when Guatemala began monitoring the situation, said Juan Enrique Quinonez, the Adolescent Development Specialist at UNICEF’s bureau in Guatemala. Last year about 61,000 adolescent girls were pregnant, an increase of half since 2009.
Alejandra Colom, professor at Valle de Guatemala University and program coordinator with Population Council, said that the government began shining light on the problem in part due to children’s rights groups becoming “more vocal.” She also pointed to changes in Guatemalan law that pushed for protection of women and children.
In 2009, the Guatemalan legislature passed the Law Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking of People, which made any sexual relations with girls less than 14 years of age a crime.
In 2012, about 4,000 girls ages 10 to 14 became pregnant according to UNICEF. About 30 percent of them—or enough to fill about 40 elementary school classrooms—were raped by their own fathers according to a report filed by the Human Rights Ombudsman in Guatemala.
Since the introduction of the 2009 law, about 4,000 cases of sexual assault on girls have been brought to the judicial system, said Quinonez. This year, the first convictions were carried out under the new law with 20 people sentenced for rape.
As part of the law, for every pregnant girl who enters a hospital or medical center, a report must be filed with the courts, which are then obliged to investigate. What this process does not address—and what the statistics do not count—are the girls who never visit a hospital during pregnancy. In rural communities where access to health care is limited, this is a reality.

Teenagers in Guatemala waiting for their pre-natal exam. Photo via "Tuschman" Wordpress blog

Adolescent pregnancy is more frequent in certain communities, usually in rural areas according to Saul Interiano, Director of COINCIDIR, a children’s advocacy group in Guatemala.
“The health system is non-existent in those communities,” he said.
In 2005, the Guatemalan legislature passed a law that guaranteed universal access to contraception and reproductive health education.
“[Contraceptive] methods are currently available in all health services for free,” said Gustavo Batres, an employee of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance.
But according to Interiano, contraception is sometimes denied to adolescents.
Conservative values still run deep in Guatemalan society. Sometimes a girl will be denied contraception if a man does not accompany her to the health center, he said.
Teenage Pregnancy Making It Difficult for Girls to Finish School
Education is also very limited in rural areas. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, girls ages 10 to 12 living in urban areas are almost two times more likely to finish primary school than their peers living in rural areas.
Girls without access to secondary education are more likely to marry early and have children, said Colom.
Pregnancy, however, is also a reason for girls to drop out of school.
Claudia Paredes, who runs a youth education program called “My Health, My Responsibility,” is trying to change that phenomenon. Her program has worked with 40,000 young people.
“We want them to finish high school because many of them drop out of school because they become pregnant,” she said.
She founded the program in 2008 as a way to spread reproductive health education to boys and girls in high schools. Youth leaders travel to high schools in rural areas of the country and talk about self-esteem, relationships, and sex, among other topics.
“That’s what we’re working on in this country … that girls need to be girls and study. They don’t have to be moms,” she said.
Workshop to combat violence against women and teenage pregnancy. Photo via

Still, the number of adolescent pregnancies has not budged despite a growing movement to prevent adolescent pregnancy in Guatemala.
Colom lays the blame in part on government officials, who she says lack political will and are too conservative.
“It plays a role at the level of the Ministry of Education where the Minister [Cynthia del Águila] is very conservative and she would not promote or move forward with sexual education curriculum for example,” she said.
No Dating in Guatemalan Schools
In 2011, the Ministry of Education prohibited dating in schools.
Although sex education is required in schools under that 2005 law, the conservatism of the culture sometimes causes schools to shy away from the subject, said Colom.
“It’s easier for the teachers to ban it than to address it,” said Interiano.
The Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, along with a number of other governmental departments, signed a letter pledging their support of reproductive health education.
When asked what needed to happen for dramatic changes to be seen, Colom said “someone who enforces the law. A more productive administration. Growing demand from adolescents … Civil society is keeping the topic alive.” 

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