- By Kary Vannice
More than 30% of Mexican teenagers between the ages 15 to 19 are sexually active, 56% of these teen girls become pregnant. Mexico ranks number one for teen pregnancy among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made up of 35 developed and developing countries.
The price of teenage promiscuity is high. Teen pregnancy puts a tremendous burden not only on the young mother but on her family, community and society as a whole. It affects the health care system, the education system, social and government programs, and family units. It costs millions and millions of pesos and, more disturbing, thousands of lives every year, of both mothers and children. In Mexico, infants of mothers under 20 face a 50% greater risk of prenatal mortality or death in the first weeks of life. As a result, every year girls aged 15 to 19 subject themselves to dangerous abortions, contributing to maternal mortality and long-term health problems. Globally, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second highest ranking cause of teen mortality.
And the trend of teen pregnancy in Mexico is steadily increasing, rising by nearly 10% from 2014 to 2016.
So, who’s to blame? Is it the young girls themselves, as one Mexico state health secretary implied when he said that high teen pregnancy rates in his state are caused both by “irresponsibility among females and inattention on the part of the heads of families.”
Statistics on teen sex show that, indeed, 49% do not use any method of contraception their first time having sex. What that statistic does not show, however, are the circumstances in which many of young girls have their first sexual encounter.
Perhaps to find the real cause, one must consider some even more alarming statistics related to young Mexican girls.
In one report, a UNICEF representative in Mexico, Christian Skoog, said teenage pregnancies are often the result of violence against women, with studies showing that more than 60% of young girls in Mexico experiencing some form of violence in 2015.
That report was supported by an article which quoted the Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong as saying most girls who get pregnant before the age of 15 are victims of “some kind of physical violence.”
And those statistics don’t even capture the youngest girls affected. Osorio was also quoted as saying “One in six pregnancies in this country, nearly 20%, are girls between 10 and 19 years old.”
Ten-year-old girls getting pregnant? Surely, pregnant ten- and eleven-year-old girls are not the result of young, impressionable girls looking for love in all the wrong places.
No, when a ten-year-old girl gets pregnant it is almost always the result of incest or rape.
Forbes Mexico recently highlighted some of the most common underlying causes of teen pregnancy:
- A culture of gender inequality that prevents young women from finishing their studies by forcing them to take on domestic tasks and child raising at home
- Societal norms that perpetuate the violence and impunity of child sexual abuse and exploitation (even in family environments) that is estimated to affect more than 16,000 adolescents in Mexico, the vast majority of them girls
- Poverty in marginalized communities that see child marriage as a family survival strategy
- The lack of study opportunities in rural communities and quality education, which lead teenagers to leave school and go to work or start a life as a couple
Numbers, statistics, and talk about gender bias and social norms help to frame the issue, but personal stories really color in the lines.
In 2015, the Washington Post published a pictorial article about a young Mexican girl named Gloria from the community of Maluco, in the north of the Istmo de Tehuantepec. Gloria was repeatedly raped by her father before giving birth to her son at the age of 12. As a result, she was forced to drop out of school to care for her child and help earn money for her family.
Gloria’s story is not uncommon. It is a story I have personally heard time and again in Latin countries. I once met a 22-year-old grandmother in Costa Rica because of a similar culture of abuse.
Equally as tragic is the story of “Rosa” as told in an article published by the Agence France Presse. At the age of 12, Rosa, a young girl from Puebla, Mexico, was sold into sex slavery by her own mother, twice!
The second time she ended up pregnant and was sent to Casa Mercedes, a home for young pregnant girls. Casa Mercedes in Mexico City provides a safe place for girls to live, get and education and, if they choose, to raise their babies. They are also given the option to give the baby up for adoption or have an abortion.
Claudia Colimor runs Casa Mercedes. She tells the story of Rosa this way…
“She got pregnant from being forced into sex work, because her mother had sold her. The first time, she refused to believe her own mother had sold her. She ran away, went home to her mom asking for help, and her mom sold her again.”
I can’t help but go back to the statement made by the government health official that blamed “irresponsible females” and “inattentive heads of families” for the teenage pregnancy crisis in Mexico.
I have to wonder how the number of young girls getting pregnant will ever be reduced if government officials blame the victims and refuse to acknowledge that, often times, at least in the cases of very young girls, it is the heads of families that are the perpetrators themselves.
Government officials are going to have to do better. And many of them are. The aforementioned Secretary of the Interior, Miguel Osorio Chong, after acknowledging that there are 340,000 pregnancies to girls between 10 and 19 years of age in Mexico annually, said his goal in 2018 is to eradicate pregnancy in girls 10 to 15 years old. And to reduce by 50% that of young women between 15 and 19.
And, last October, another lawmaker, Congresswoman Sofía González Torres, presented an initiative to prohibit childhood marriage, stating that one out of every five women in Mexico enters a marriage before the age of 18. These are ambitious goals in a country where gender equality is just starting to become a movement. So, knowing that the wheels of bureaucracy often move slowly, what is the most powerful contraceptive for young girls living in Mexico today?
Girls who are given the opportunity to go to school and get an education dream of becoming more than a teenage mother. Teen girls who have access to youth programs that teach them their rights and empower them to strive for something beyond what they’ve known will grow up to be women who shift the balance of gender equity and balance the scales for all females in Mexico. Maybe then, the problem of teen pregnancy will finally be solved.
If you would like to help, here is a short list of organizations that assist young girls in Mexico:
Casa Mercedes: http://casamercedesiap.com/
Marie Stopes: https://mariestopes.org.mx/
Instituto National de Mujeres: https://www.gob.mx/inmujeres/