Spiralling levels of poverty and sexual violence have left Nicaragua with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. Now, with the support of Plan International’s Girl Power Project, young people are finding their voice and educating their parents and peers on the risks of teen pregnancy…
“It was the talk of my community,” says Slilma*, 16, as she looks down at her battered wooden desk, in her darkened classroom, in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) of Nicaragua.
“I had just turned 14 when I fell pregnant… I’d been going out with my boyfriend for a year. He was 18. I knew vaguely how to protect myself, but he didn’t like using condoms. We had unprotected sex and I became pregnant. My mother grew suspicious around the sixth month. I took a test, which confirmed it. When I told my boyfriend, he disappeared. I never saw him again.”
Slilma stayed in school up until she gave birth, but afterwards she had to leave to look after her baby.
Lack of rights
Nicaragua has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, with 28% of women giving birth before the age of 18**, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Sexual violence against girls is one of the major contributing factors to the high rate of teenage pregnancies in the country. According to Nicaragua’s Institute of Legal Medicine**, 6,069 cases of sexual violence were reported in 2013. A staggering 88% of these were young girls, mostly teenagers.
“Girls who become pregnant before they are 18 lose their childhood and have to take on adult obligations, often without being able to enjoy the benefits of adulthood. They are rarely able to exercise their rights to education, health, protection and an adequate quality of life,” says country director of Plan International Nicaragua, Matthew Carlson.
In RACCN, teenage pregnancy and sexual violence are widespread.
Jennifer*, 16, stands outside the shelter for girls supported by Plan International Nicaragua, where she sought safety after she gave birth. The shelter provides a safe place to stay for those fleeing violence, along with healthcare, food and psychological support.
“During my journey to school, I met an older man. He was 29 and I was 14,” she says. “He kept asking me to go out with him. Eventually, I said yes.”
Jennifer kept her pregnancy a secret for 6 months until her mother found out. “My mother was so angry, she beat me and threw me out of the house. I only saw the father of my child twice – but on both occasions he was aggressive.”
Teenagers such as Jennifer, rejected by their family, are often forced to seek refuge elsewhere. According to Carmen Poveda, Special Police Commissioner for RACCN:
“Pregnant girls as young as 12 or 13 now come to the police station. They are distressed and we have to take them to the local shelter, where they can give birth. Together with Plan International Nicaragua, we have been working with girls, informing them about their rights so they can share this message with others in the community.”
Spreading the word
Teenagers across the region are also rallying together to reduce the risk of teenage pregnancy in their community, with the support of Plan International.
Our Girl Power Project has worked in RACCN since 2012, educating young people about sexual health and how to protect themselves. Every week, with the support of local community workers, teenagers have frank, open discussions about the issue of teenage pregnancy.
Karen, 14, is part of the local youth group, along with her friends, Jennifer and Slilma*.
“We need more education on sexual health and we want our parents to feel comfortable talking to us about it,” says Karen. “We don’t want to feel ashamed.”
As for Slilma, she’s now back in school and determined to help others. “Young people shouldn’t do what I did, as being a teenage mother has had a major impact on my life. Now, girls and boys come and talk to me about issues they are facing. I was lucky to have received so much support. I am eager to use my experience positively and help others in my community. ”
*Names have been changed
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