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Why is Guatemala’s teen pregnancy rate so high?

By German A. Ospina
Council on Hemispheric Affairs

In a 2012 interview with Inter Press Service, Dr. Mirna Montenegro of the Observatorio de Salud Reproductiva (Sexual and Reproductive Health Observatory; OSAR), an organization that monitors Guatemala’s public policy on reproductive health, stated, “We are one of the few countries where there are so many pregnancies among 10 to 14-year-old girls.”

In Guatemala, half of all women are married by the age of 20, and 44 percent become mothers by the same age. Among indigenous and uneducated women, the latter statistic rises to 54 and 68 percent, respectively. By the age of 30, many of these women have seven or eight children, and even though a federal mandate provides reproductive health education and healthcare, only 5 percent of women in Guatemala consistently use an effective method of birth control, mainly due to cultural norms and the influence of the Catholic Church’s ban on contraceptive use.

According to the country’s Ministry of Health and Social Assistance, there were 135,808 pregnancies in girls aged 10 to 19 between 2009 and 2011. In 2012, there were 61,000 pregnancies —of which 35 were 10-year-old girls — giving Guatemala the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America.

Many experts believe that the lack of education and healthcare, widespread poverty, and sexual violence are the catalyst behind Guatemala’s rise in teen pregnancy.

Education and Health

With 25 percent of the country illiterate, Guatemala ranks 174th out of 194 countries in terms of literacy. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the average education level for a Guatemalan is four years and only a third of children graduate from the sixth grade.

The Guatemalan education system is second-rate, particularly in rural areas, where the majority of classrooms do not have suitable schooling materials. Additionally, many children are forced to drop out due to their parents’ inability to pay for school and transportation fees. The dropout rates among children — specifically rural and indigenous children — are exceedingly high, and girls are normally the most affected.

Of the 2 million Guatemalan children who do not attend school, indigenous girls, specifically Mayan, make up the majority. Mayan girls are among the country’s most underprivileged groups due to limited schooling, early marriage, and lingering poverty.

Ten to 12-year-old rural Mayan girls are almost half as likely to finish primary school as their urban counterparts. Secondary schooling is practically nonexistent, where only 30 percent of rural, indigenous girls enroll.

Alejandra Colom, a professor at Valle de Guatemala University and program coordinator with Population Council, insists, “Girls without access to secondary education are more likely to marry early and have children.”

According to Justo Solórzano, an expert in child protection services for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the level of education among young girls must be increased in order to prevent pregnancy. He claims, “There are 158 girls daily that are becoming pregnant [in Guatemala] and the state does not have at least one plan of education to deter it.” Solórzano stresses that the state and political parties must be held accountable in order to construct policies that benefit the social development of girls, especially in rural and indigenous areas.

Saul Interiano, director of Asociación Coincidir, a children’s advocacy group in Guatemala, is adamant that adolescent pregnancy is more prevalent in certain communities, mainly rural areas. Regarding his view on the country’s ineptness in tackling teen pregnancy, Interiano has said, “The health system is non-existent in those communities.”

Although the Guatemalan government has not been very proactive, the legislature did pass a law that guaranteed universal access to contraception and reproductive health education in schools. The family planning law, which was passed in 2005 but enacted in 2009, faced legal challenges mostly from the Catholic Church, which argued that the law violated academic freedom, freedom of religion, and the right of parents to teach their children about sexual reproduction as they see fit.

The law required the Ministry of Education to include sex education in the primary school curriculum, with subjects such as personal care, pregnancy, parenthood, reproduction, and sexually transmitted diseases and required the Ministry of Public Health, the Guatemalan Social Security Institute, and public and private health institutions to make contraceptives widely available.

However, Interiano reiterates that even though contraception is available, it is often denied to teens. In Guatemala’s machismo culture, girls are frequently denied birth control at health centers unless accompanied by a man. In the chance that a girl is not denied, most are persuaded by the Catholic Church to not use an effective method of birth control.

Rampant Poverty in Rural Areas

Statistics prove that poverty has an undeniable role in teen pregnancy. In Guatemala, poverty disproportionally affects the indigenous and rural population more than the urban.

Among the poor, rural areas where fertility rates are high, 68 percent of children under the age of six and 63 percent of children under the age of 18 live below the poverty threshold. Furthermore, 75 percent of the indigenous population in Guatemala lives in poverty, especially within the “poverty belt” – Guatemala’s Western plateau and Northern region.

Despite making up 50 percent of Guatemala’s population, the indigenous community only accounts for 25 percent of the country’s total income and consumption. In some of rural Guatemala, poverty rates surpass 90 percent, where the typical indigenous family makes less than $4 USD per day.

A 2014 World Bank report entitled “Guatemala Economic DNA” states that the poorest 40 percent of the country’s 15 million inhabitants lives on $1.50 USD per day — a decrease from $1.60 USD in 2003. Given this circumstance, many rural indigenous families pressure their young daughters to find suitable, economically stable husbands.

Lizani López, who works for OSAR in the central city of Cóban, perfectly describes a family’s eagerness to give away their daughter: “It’s like a relief that someone else becomes responsible for the girl. Sometimes parents will give the girl to someone with a lot of resources — it’s a bit like trafficking.”

López gave an example of a family that gave away their 16-year-old daughter to a 25-year-old man in return for covering half of the family’s $650 USD debt to a bank. Eventually, the girl became pregnant and dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

Stories like these are not uncommon, and it could be the result of the government’s inability to collect the appropriate taxes for investment in public education, health, and infrastructure and to combat poverty that has greatly affected growth in Guatemala — the only country in Latin America where the poor have been getting poorer.

Historically, Guatemalan governments have shunned indigenous communities and excluded them from policies that would directly benefit them. In the 1960s, social movements spread rapidly throughout Guatemala, demanding land and fair wages in the Mayan highlands and large farms in the southern part of the country. The state responded with vicious counter-insurgency campaigns led by General Ríos Montt, and what ensued was a militarization of the area during a 36-year civil war between the Guatemalan government and various leftist guerrilla groups, in which most of the indigenous communities found themselves caught in the crossfire.

It is estimated that the Guatemalan Civil War caused 200,000 deaths, created 200,000 refugees in Mexico, and left 1 million people internally displaced — mostly at the hands of the military, police, and intelligence services. The Civil War withered indigenous communities across the Western and Central Highlands, which today remain fragile from the ruthless violence.

After almost two decades of formal peace, poor indigenous Guatemalans continue to be racially targeted and excluded from land, labor, education, and justice.

Legacy of Sexual Violence

More than 100,000 women and young girls fell victim to the systematic rape by government forces, led by Ríos Montt during the Guatemalan Civil War. Teresa Sic, an indigenous woman, recalls her experience during that epoch. She explains, “When the soldiers found me they grabbed me, took me to the river, and raped me. On the same day, they raped other women in the village. They burned everything. They tied me up. I freed myself aided by my 5-year-old daughter. I went to seek help. I was hungry and afraid, but nobody would take us in.”

The horrific details provided by Sic demonstrate the sexual violence and brutal disregard toward women overseen by Ríos Montt during the Civil War. In 2013, the former dictator of Guatemala was convicted to an 80-year sentence on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the massacre of thousands of Mayan indigenous during his 1982-1983 regime. However, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned his sentence and ordered a new trial due to procedural errors. The new trial is set for July 23.

Mayra Rodas, a psychologist coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala, believes that most of the social problems created by the civil war in Guatemala have not been resolved and women are the ones most affected by it.

Mayra clarifies that one of the reasons for the sexual violence toward women could be the machismo and patriarchal society in Guatemala. Mayra explains, “Women are treated as objects, which can be taken. To be a woman here is like being garbage. This is what our patients tell us.”

The legacy of sexual violence during the Civil War has left a mark on Guatemalan society. According to the country’s Human Rights Office, thousands of children are sexually abused by relatives each year, and 89 percent of the rapists are immediate family members, of which 30 percent are parents.

“He would force me to have sex with him,” recalls Olga Vásquez, whose name has been changed for her protection. Now 17, she said she was repeatedly raped by her father during her adolescent years. She claims, “I hated when he would do it and if I refused him he would beat me very hard with a TV cord. He took away my freedom and that really hurt me.”

According to UNICEF, in 2012 around 4,000 girls between the ages of 10 to 14 became pregnant. The Human Rights Ombudsman in Guatemala reported that of these 4,000 girls, 30 percent of them were raped by their own fathers. Vásquez is one of many that have been sexually abused by either relatives or strangers. It serves as a constant reminder of the sexual violence that young women are experiencing in Guatemala.

Leonel Dubón, director of El Refugio de la Niñez (Childhood Refuge Organization), has lamented the absence of protection for children in institutions that are trusted with fixing this problem. The activist explained, “The state remains the notable absent in childhood protection, and I do not refer strictly to the government, who should implement developmental policies in their principal agenda to prevent the deteriorating situation of childhood protection that we have seen in the last 10 years.”

Dubón clarifies that current and aspiring politicians regularly use the image of children for their own political benefits, without the real intention of supporting that sector of the population.

Social Organizations and Government Response

In recent years, social organizations have been active in providing health and education assistance to young girls to make up for the underfunding of the Guatemalan government. One example is “My Health, My Responsibility,” a youth education program founded in 2008 by Claudia Paredes, which aims to spread reproductive health education to boys and girls at high schools throughout rural Guatemala.

Her youth leaders travel to high schools in indigenous areas in Guatemala and talk to students about relationships, sex, and pregnancy. Claudia understands that girls without proper education will be deprived of social and economic advancement and will likely become pregnant. She explains, “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.”

The Family Welfare Association of Guatemala (APROFAM) has also been active in schools, showing teenagers of both sexes the practical characteristics of pregnancy and parenthood. The organization is well known for using props, such as electronic babies and pregnancy simulators. According to Cecilia Fajardo, a psychologist with APROFAM, “the pregnancy simulator is a strap-on garment with an enlarged bust and belly weighing 25 pounds, the average weight gain a woman experiences in pregnancy.”

The simulator enables the teenagers to experience different signs and symptoms a woman goes through during a pregnancy. The electronic baby has been another effective method that the organization has used to get their message across regarding pregnancy and teen parenthood. The computerized electronic baby imitates the behavior of a newborn, crying to signal hunger and tiredness. Fajardo believes that exposing teenagers to these signs and symptoms of pregnancy and the responsibility of taking care of a newborn will raise awareness to the truths and consequences of pregnancy. Fajardo is adamant that the organization’s methods do not dissuade or impose to girls that they should not be mothers, but rather, educates them on sexuality and reproductive health.

There are numerous organizations similar to Claudia’s “My Health, My Responsibility” and APROFAM that have taken this particular role and pressured the government to take action. It seems like their lobbying has paid off.

In 2009, the Family Planning Law regulations were adopted, which brought sex education into primary schools and provided universal access to birth control. In 2010, the Healthy Maternity Act was approved, which requires authorities to provide basic services for women before, during, and after pregnancy. Also, the Ministries of Education and Public Health signed a cooperative agreement in 2010 to implement agendas that would help prevent maternal mortality and unwanted pregnancies in the provinces with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS.

In addition, the Guatemalan government has taken a stand against sexual violence.

In 2009, the Guatemalan legislature passed the Law Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking of People, which criminalizes sexual relations with girls less than 14 years of age — the legal age to marry in the country. Part of the law stipulates that for every pregnant girl who enters a hospital and medical center, a report must be filed with the courts and the pregnancy would then go under investigation.

There are fallacies within the law, however, particularly the unaccountability of pregnant teens who never enter the hospital. This is more common in rural areas where health care is very limited. Nevertheless, since the law was implemented, around 4,000 cases of sexual assault have been brought to light and reviewed by the judicial system. In 2013, the first convictions were handed out, and 20 people were sentenced for rape.

The actions by Guatemala’s government in an attempt decrease teen pregnancy and eradicate sexual violence should be commended; however, more work needs to be done for young girls to finally have an alternative to dropping out of school and becoming pregnant.

As Rosa Elvira Colop, the regional delegate for the government’s Indigenous Women Defense office, describes, “We can’t live with some of these customs that don’t permit girls to develop.” The machismo myth that women are only good for homemaking should no longer be acceptable and the government should continue to implement public policies that will empower women, not demean them.

German A. Ospina is research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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