Misguided Solutions: Prevalent Teen Pregnancy in Latin America and Caribbean

Having lived in Latin America for over three years, I definitely walk around wearing my acquired “Latin goggles” —  not noticing things that used to catch my eye or strike me as odd. This Tico Times article, however, brought me back to my first weeks living in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t describe myself as necessarily an overly observant individual, but when I moved here from Canada, culture shock struck me right between the eyes.

One of the first things I noticed was how many young women were walking in the streets, shopping in the malls, and eating in the restaurants with young or infant children. This theme was extrapolated as I began teaching and many young female students would tell me of their children — often times using the plural. I had many reflexive moments asking myself, “There aren’t this many young mothers in Canada, are there?”

I admit I’ve been guilty of the mentality I wrote about in the “Second Trimester.” While taken aback by the volume of young mothers in the region, I quickly assured myself that it’s just the way it is. This was my planned angle for a one-off post on the Canal after reading the Tico Times’ article which reinforced that what I’d seen here in Costa Rica was in fact a trend that expanded across the Latin American region.

Looking into the topic further, I quickly decided I couldn’t do justice to the topic in a single post and decided to expand it. The “Third Trimester” on possible solutions jumped out at me from the outset as the most interesting because of its inherit ambiguity.

The idea of a solution to teen pregnancy is intriguing to me. The word solution implies that there is a correctable problem. In the context of teen pregnancy, what does this mean, exactly?

When Latin America is identified as having the second highest teen pregnancy rate in the world at 18 percent of total births, it’s certainly headline grabbing. But if we’re talking about solutions, does that imply that there is a percentage that would be deemed as acceptable or ideal? If Latin America’s teen pregnancy rate were, say, 6 percent would no one view it as a problem?

If the answer is “yes,” we’re looking at this from the wrong angle — and a simple, babies-are-a-problem approach misses the point.

I wrote about the what, the problems of education, in “The Second Trimester” with a promise for the how in this section. A big step forward in tackling this issue is shifting the teen pregnancy away from statistics and towards people. Taking a personal approach to ensure that young people are properly, and objectively, taught about sexuality is a good place to start.

For those who argue that their teenage child is too young to learn of such things, this simply isn’t true. With studies showing average age of first sexual experiences in the region ranging from 12.7 years old for “men” and 15.6 for women in Jamaica to 16 and 17.9 in Chile for both genders, early sexual education is key.

This extends to contraception usage as well. While results from a UNFA study showed that approximately 90 percent of young people in Latin America and the Caribbean reported knowing of at least one form of contraception, between 48 and 53 percent of those sexually active in the study reported never having used contraception.

This isn’t to say that the ball isn’t already rolling in terms of sexual awareness. It certainly is. Social programs across the region have seen increases in sex education, with notable increases in contraception use in Colombia, Brazil, and Chile. The government program recently launched in Costa Rica, that caught my initial interest, takes great initiative in informing its young people about sexual responsibility. Programs for young women on motherhood and what it means, like this one in Brazil, are also becoming prevalent.

Motherhood programs, though, are as much thought provoking as they are educational.

When discussing this with a friend the other day, he jokingly told me that I could set the women’s movement back fifty years by writing that women having babies is their innate instinct. And while there’s a grain of salt, or two, to be taken with the idea, there is something to it.

We assume that a really low teen pregnancy rate is the end goal. Is it, though, inconceivable that an educated and informed woman in her teens would decide to become a mother? Certainly not. Where would this mother, then, be placed in the acceptable percentile of teenage pregnancy?

When reading countless stories about young mothers, one thing was blatantly obvious: we can’t get lost in the statistics. As we’ve seen in the first two parts of this series, the percentages range anywhere from pregnancy due to choice, violence, or ignorance. Any percentage represents a young woman who is or will soon become a mother.  Likewise, those same statistics represent young woman who are not yet pregnant, but may lack the knowledge to make an informed decision on the subject.

The key with talk of a solution is to discuss, to educate, and to inform. Statistics work well for studies and for chest thumping governments. They may give us leads as to where problems lie, but don’t give us the means with which to fix those problems. Beyond the isolated statistics, though, there are people. We should talk to them.

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