Guatemala’s teen mothers: behind the shocking statistics

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In 2014, 71,000 pregnancies were registered in girls 10-19 years old.
Photo: Girl at the kite festival of Sumpango, Sacatepéquez. Photo by Patricia Macías.
By Patricia Schwartz

The annual “OSAR” (Observation of Sexual and Reproductive Health) study reveals the history of the precarious situation of underage mothers in Guatemala, and how it persists today. According to 2016 data, the first trimester of 2016 saw 9,829 pregnancies in children under 18 years of age. In 2014, a total of 71,000 pregnancies were registered in girls 10-19 years old. From this figure, it should be noted that 5,119 of those pregnancies were in girls under 14.

Guatemala’s high rate of pregnancy in young girls is one symptom of a complex myriad of social issues that can be traced to the general subordinate condition of women in the country. Under-representation of women in political, economic, and educational spheres and the significant violence and exclusion they suffer contribute to the maintenance of a patriarchal structure that oppresses women and eliminates their opportunities for advancement.

The consequences of underage pregnancies have dangerous adverse effects on the health of these mothers and their babies. The extensive list of risks for young mothers and children due to the inadequate state of a young girl’s body to support a pregnancy include malnutrition and a lack of essential nutrients for proper development. In 50% of cases in Guatemala, pregnant girls present heights of less than 1.5 meters, which signifies a large risk for underweight babies at birth. It also increases the possibility for miscarriage, deformities, hypertension during pregnancy, and a range of other problems with the physical and mental development and performance of the newborns that can often last their entire lives.

Three generations in Xela. Photo by Patricia Macías.

Underage pregnancies also create ripple effects that weaken the fabric of society. OSAR has shown that 88% of girls that were in school, abandoned their studies after becoming pregnant. The absence of these young women in the education system causes a lifelong void in productive and political centers. The number of Guatemalan women who generate no personal income is four times higher than the number of men. This is largely due to the vast amount of time that they spend doing domestic, non-paid work.

Vima Liliana de León, Companion for Gender Democracy at the national nonprofit organization SERJUS, aptly stated, “The values of the family are reflected in the society.”

And we are living in a society in which 45% of women are victims of verbal, physical, or sexual violence, according to 2008 data from the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance. This year, The National Institute of Forensic Science (INACIF) registered 1,663 sexual crimes against women during legal medical examinations in just the first three months of 2016. The population most affected by this type of violence is girls between 0-17 years old. Further, it must be taken into account that a huge number of these crimes are unreported as a result of the culture of silence surrounding sexual violence. This silence is especially marked when the violence is committed by a family member. Such cases make up the overwhelming majority of sexually violent crimes against young girls.

Despite overwhelming challenges, some signs of hope do exist, at least in theory, in Guatemalan law for the protection and advancement of women.  In November, 2015 Congress modified the Civil Code to raise the legal minimum marriage age from 14 to 18 girls (and from 16 to 18 for boys).  The national Law Against Femicide can also be a strong and comprehensive tool, when put into practice.

However, as Ms. De León laments, “the problem is in the application.” Working in the field of gender democracy, she witnesses first-hand the enormous gap between the law and its application in the hostile cultural climate. She has observed year after year how proposals and recommendations to encourage the application of existing laws have had no effect. Though a robust statute may exist on paper, it is rendered useless without proper application. In the example of the Law Against Femicide, there is still a lot of hesitation on the part of potential informants because of restrictive rules around expensive representation from a lawyer. Likewise, the country’s unmet demand for contraception and family planning education (ranked one of the highest in Latin American and the Caribbean) could be addressed via applied reforms and actions called for in the “Law of Universal and Equitable Access to Family Planning Services” (Decreto 87-2005).

According to Ms. De Leon, the most critical areas of intervention to combat the violence against and exclusion of women that exacerbate the current underage pregnancy situation are: sexual education, comprehensive healthcare, and active political involvement of young women and men.

From the perspective of gender democracy, we must recognize the roles that both women and men have to play in creating a safer and more constructive Guatemala for all. This struggle also means creating new models of masculinity, removing violence from gender production and presentation, and creating open spaces for men to ask for help and understanding.

Guatemala has been hotbed for youth-led political action in recent years. These generations hold the power and potential for real reform across political, social and cultural boundaries. The first step is diagnosing the issues and limitations holding women back, and from there, speaking out.  As De León knows first-hand, “the fight starts within ourselves.”