Francisco is a free-thinking father compared to many in his community. Where he lives, in the indigenous province of Chimborazo, deep in the Ecuadorian Andes, teenage pregnancy affects 15% of girls and those who fall pregnant are typically forced to leave school to look after their babies.
According to Plan International Ecuador, many parents in the local community find it difficult to talk to their teenage children about their sexual and reproductive rights. This can leave young people, many of whom receive poor or no sex education at school, with no-one to talk to about when it’s best to start a family.
Teenage pregnancy free zones
Not so in Francisco’s family. He and his daughter Gladys, 17, are both participating in Plan International’s Teenage Pregnancy Free Zones programme in Chimborazo.
Stay single. Study. Protect yourself. You’re young. Make yourself a future first.
For Francisco, this has meant communicating openly with his daughter about the facts of life.
“I tell her please don’t have children or get married yet,” says Francisco. “Stay single. Study. Protect yourself. You’re young. Make yourself a future first. It’ll be a really hard life for you if you do.”
A report produced in 2017 by Plan International Ecuador, ‘Patterns of violence against girls in Ecuador’, revealed that so common is the violence and discrimination encountered by pregnant indigenous girls that many young women say they associate teenage pregnancy with non-consensual sex, violence and “pregnant girls with black eyes”. Sometimes parents are the perpetrators.
But Francisco swears he is different. “I don’t want Gladys to get pregnant but wouldn’t beat her if she did, or shout at her,” he says. “I’d give her advice, give her the benefit of my experience. I just think it’d be best if she waited until she’s a bit older to get married.”
Sexual health services are vital for teens
In recent months, Francisco has been receiving training from Plan International Ecuador to become a community health volunteer so that one day he’ll be able to provide life-saving care to young mothers and their babies.
Worldwide, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year-old girls, so Francisco is learning to spot the warning signs in teenage girls’ pregnancies. Things such as “the mother bleeding during the pregnancy or getting headaches and stomach-aches, feeling dizzy. Or if the baby is born with a purplish body or if it’s swollen. Or if it won’t breastfeed.”
Gladys, meanwhile, is committed to ensuring she stays child-free for the time being. She’s one of 325 adolescents taking part in a fortnightly club where she learns about sexual and reproductive health and rights, how to prevent teen pregnancy, sexual abuse and STIs. Together with her friends, she frequently visits the local health centre to pick up the free contraception dispensed there to make sure they don’t get pregnant.
Gladys has plans for her future
She’s clear why this is important to them. “We need to study and finish school so that we can go to university and have professional careers,” she says. “Many women don’t study and just get married and then their husbands abuse them.”
“If a girl gets pregnant, the parents beat her and she has to drop out of school. She then stays home just looking after the children and their husband.”
Gladys already contributes substantially to her family – she gets up at 4am to make sure there’s enough time for her to cook breakfast for the family and tend to the animals before school.
She sees very little gender equality in her community. “The men go off with other women and they forget about the woman they were with to start with and their children,” she says. “They say it’s not their baby and then they don’t want to have anything to do with us or the baby.”
This isn’t the future she envisions for herself. She would like to have a family one day - but not until she’s achieved her dream of becoming a doctor.