Beyond the Numbers: Prevalent Teen Pregnancy in Latin America and Caribbean

A Colombian mother frantically looked around a Bogota café for her seventeen day-old baby, but she was nowhere to be seen. Her child had been abducted and was long gone.

Reunited with their child three days later after a successful police search, the parents appeared on a local news channel to speak of the incident — but that sparked another story altogether. The father was twenty-seven years old, and the mother was fourteen. Yes, they were a couple.

Colombia’s legal age of consent is fourteen, for those wondering. Their television appearance ignited much debate over a variety of aspects about their relationship. Talk of the day or not, Colombia’s reaction is noteworthy in a society that tends to have a “that’s just the way it is” attitude toward teenage pregnancy. Let’s examine some of the causes for why Latin America continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world and if cultural attitudes are in fact shifting.

Blame religion. Blame society. It’s the parents’ fault! While teen pregnancy is a complicated issue and it can be easy to apply blame anywhere, it appears the seeds to the problem, and a turnaround, lie in two categories.

The First: Education.

I will explore the how of education in the “Third Trimester.” For now, let’s focus on the what.

The role education plays is much bigger than anything learned in a classroom. It represents a future. One of the biggest issues plaguing much of Latin America is that current education systems do not represent a future worth pursuing for young women.

A recognized view is that the likelihood of a young woman becoming pregnant decreases significantly the longer she is in school. Studies have shown that the median ages at first birth indicate that women who attained second or tertiary levels of education gave birth to their first child at older ages on average. That is, of course, if that young woman was lucky enough to have the opportunity to stay in school that long.

Dropping out of school to support families is a common occurrence for many teens in the region. A UNESCO report in 2012 showed 17 percent of students in Latin America and the Caribbean leave school before completing even primary education.

dropout ratesWith dropouts more common in lower income households, a detailed breakdown of high school graduation levels in the region can be seen here. In the lowest income quintile for each particular country, Chile has the highest high school graduate rate at 64.49 percent, with Guatemala the lowest at 3.94 percent.

Furthermore, as stated by the UNFA, with lessened earning prospects in the job market as a result, women who don’t finish school are also more likely to have children that will repeat the pattern of early childbirth, creating a repetitive and dangerous cycle of poverty.

Even more surprising, some teenage women, based on perceived low quality of education an inability to achieve an improved standard of living, are attempting to get pregnant on purpose. A study carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) showed that this is the solution many young women came to in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.

Getting pregnant on purpose obviously is not the majority, but the study raises great points about what the value of education really is.

The Second: Culture of Indifference.

“That’s just the way it is” is a symbolic phrase about the issue. From a shrug of the shoulder about teen pregnancy rates to ambivalence about becoming pregnant, a cultural shift is in order. A 2010 Colombian study showed that while a high number of teenage pregnancies are unwanted, 34 percent of those young women were happy to become mothers, furthering a common trend in Latin society that motherhood is a destiny and not a choice. (More on this in the “Third Trimester.”)

The theme of unwanted pregnancy opens the door to a dark room. Girls becoming pregnant due to rape, often times by family members or stepfathers, is an underlying concern. Often swept under the rug as a problem best dealt with behind closed doors, there are scant statistics to show exactly how many teen pregnancies are caused by rape.

By now we are all familiar with the eleven-year-old Chilean girl who was raped and impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend. Going ahead with the pregnancy, the girl has been praised by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera for showing “depth and maturity.” Her mother’s reaction? Defense of her boyfriend, claiming the relationship was consensual.

We all wish the best for the fourteen-year-old mother in Colombia and the eleven-year-old mother to be in Chile. Specific stories like these open our eyes to issues that have been ongoing for years. There are many reasons as to why teen pregnancy is so high in Latin America, and I’ve only scraped the surface here. In the “Third Trimester,” to come out on Thursday, July 25, I will discuss some possible solutions.

Food for thought: A solution for whom?

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