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20th July 2016

Stolen childhoods: preventing teenage pregnancy

In some parts of Mexico, adolescents routinely find themselves rushed into parenthood

To some, they are ‘runaway brides’ eloping in search of adventure and a new life. To others, they are children pressured into motherhood long before they are mature enough to cope.

Mexico’s teenage pregnancy rate is the highest in the OECD. By a lot. Teenage girls in Mexico are more than four times as likely as their counterparts in Europe to be pregnant before they reach their twenties.

Around half of all sexually active teenage girls in Mexico have been pregnant, a trend exacerbated by the tradition of ‘stealing’ young girls from their families soon after they hit puberty.

In the parts of Mexico where teenager pregnancy rate is highest, access to maternal care is worst. Complications from pregnancy is among the main causes of death in 15 to 19 year olds in Mexico, and back-street abortions are the fourth-biggest cause of maternal mortality.

The people behind the data

Behind the statistics are stories of shortened childhoods. Luz Betsaida Orozco Pineda was 13 when she was ‘stolen’ from her father’s house and taken to live with her boyfriend and his family.

While marriage is illegal in Mexico before the age of 18, de facto marriages are common and come with the expectation that the relationship will be consummated.

And so it was for Luz. It wasn’t long before she was pregnant, and by the age of 14 she was nursing a new-born baby and shelving the dreams she had for her own life.

While some young teenage girls look forward to pregnancy, it often spells the end of their schooling and fast-tracks them into a world of responsibility.

“My dream when I was at school was to be something,” says Luz. “I wanted to be a doctor, actually, and I thought I’m going to keep on studying – but back then I thought I won’t get married, I won’t have a boyfriend.”

When she moved in with her boyfriend’s family, Luz dropped out of school. The decision was not her own: “If your mother-in-law says you can still go to school, you can go,” she explains. “But some say no because you might meet a boy you like more. I wanted to carry on studying but they wouldn’t let me.”

Preventing pregnancy

The negative medical and social impact of early pregnancy can be enormous. Fortunately, there are simple and inexpensive ways to help people in Mexico bring their pregnancy rates down to the level seen in comparable countries.

You might not think of condoms as a medical device but they are, in fact, closely regulated ‘technologies’.

In addition to dramatically reducing the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases, condoms are an affordable way to curb unwanted pregnancies or for couples to plan their future family. The national health service in Mexico offers free contraception – including condoms.

Other options are available too. In addition to barrier methods such as condoms, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and contraceptive implants can deliver hormones which prevent pregnancy – although they offer no protection against infection.

Hormonal contraception can be delivered in pill form but is also available as a ‘vaginal ring’, a contraceptive path, or by injection.

Many of these solutions, along with social and cultural trends, have helped to prevent teenage pregnancy – and empower girls to choose their own futures.

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